Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

The shepherds have much to teach us

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

I have always found it striking that the first people to learn of the birth of Jesus were the shepherds on the hillside outside of Bethlehem. It is as if Luke the evangelist is telling us to pay attention to them if we want to understand how we should respond to the birth of Jesus.

So, let’s listen more closely to what Luke tells about these shepherds and how the birth of Jesus affects their lives.

The first thing we hear is that they receive the news from the angelic chorus as they were guarding their flocks in the night. This overturns their understanding of the darkness of night, which understandably was associated with danger, whether that be the wild animals that threated their flock or thieves who would plunder it.

But this night is different. The night is now where Good News breaks into their lives. God is at work at night to save his people. A light shines in the darkness this night.

We are only too aware of the great deal of darkness and uncertainty in our world. There are dangers lurking in the shadows: the threats of violence in our streets, the menacing forces of terrorism that grip our hearts in fear. And there are many hidden powers that hold sway over our lives and create inequality in our local and worldwide communities. But like the shepherds we are called to believe that God is at work in this darkness, walking with us, for the one who is born in the night is Emmanuel, a name that means God-with-us.

The darkness found in the world can challenge our faith, can divide us and paralyze us in fear. We know all too well how some even exploit those fears for their own gain.

The shepherds call us to take another approach. They urge us to believe that we are not left to ourselves in the darkness, abandoned to fend for ourselves, for God is Emmanuel.

Their message was echoed centuries later by St. John of the Cross, who wrote: “When you are in darkness and cannot see anything or find a way out, then the only thing you can do is to put your hand into the hand of someone who can see and who can lead you out into the light.” 

 The evangelist Luke also tells us that upon hearing the message of the angel: “The shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’” 

What are they going to see? This child, born in a manger, an animal’s feedbox and wrapped in rags, swaddling clothes. They are not daunted by the needs of this child and his family.

Sometimes we find ourselves falling into the temptation that God is not with the needy, with those whom we have a tough time being with or whom we judge as beyond God’s care and love, because they do not measure up to our standards. The shepherds are testing our faith to believe that God is first with those the world considers marginal, beyond help, sinners, the disposable, the losers.

Maybe the shepherds found it easy to receive the message that God is with the forgotten and powerless because they were themselves among that group. Their humble acceptance of their vulnerability is an invitation for us to admit our own. In the end, we are all helpless when left to ourselves, mortal sinful human beings. The shepherds call us to a humble reality check about our lives before we too easily dismiss anyone as unimportant or a loser.

There is one final thing we learn from the shepherds as they go to the Bethlehem stable. They tell everyone what was revealed to them by the angelic hosts, leaving everyone amazed, with Mary treasuring everything in her heart. The shepherds call us to witness to our faith so that others are drawn to Christ, amazed. Our faith us not just for ourselves, but it is a gift that should enrich others, the community, the church, to the point that they treasure it in their hearts.

Pope Francis has urged us to take up the task of living our faith authentically so that others are attracted to Christ. This means taking seriously the effect we can have on one another by our example, our witness of how God is working in the darkness and how he is present especially to those most in need.

In the coming year, as we continue the pathway of Renew My Church, I want to encourage you to be intentional about your discipleship by focusing on at least one of the corporal or spiritual works of mercy as part of your routine: feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, bearing wrongs patiently, comforting the afflicted and praying for the dead.

In this way all of us can learn from the shepherds and not fear the darkness around us, but become the light that brings hope to the world, making each day a celebration of Christmas that is true to what the shepherds have taught us.


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