Advent: Emulate the shepherds, not snoozers

By Regis J. Flaherty | Contributor
Sunday, December 4, 2011

I’m always amazed at how many people are willing to camp out at the entrance of Wal-mart so that they can buy one of the “doorbuster” specials on the day after Thanksgiving. They wait long hours, in lengthy lines, in bitter cold to get that prized Christmas gift. For some it is regular pre- Christmas ritual.

We Catholics share something with those dedicated shoppers. We too have a pre-Christmas ritual. Advent is a time of awaiting the arrival of the most precious of gifts — the Savior who brings us joy, hope and the promise of eternal life. Those are gifts for which it is worth waiting and sacrificing.

Luke tells us of shepherds who were awake on that first Christmas, “living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock” (Lk 2:8). Their waiting was not a passive activity. On the contrary, they were alert to any and all danger, and ready to protect that which was entrusted to them. No wolf or lion could successfully attack while they were on watch.

The job responsibilities of shepherding point us toward spiritual responsibilities that are incumbent upon us as Catholics. During Advent we also need to be awake, alert and on guard to protect that which is entrusted to us.

To understand what it means to be awake and vigilant, let’s look at the opposite: three instances of notorious sleepers.


One example is Samson (see Jgs 13-16). We are told, “the spirit of the Lord came upon him” (14:19) and he defended Israel against her enemies. But something happened to Samson. Over time, he became less focused on the things of God and was seduced by the lures of sensuality and the pleasures of this world.

His hair, uncut because of his consecration to God, was the symbol of his relationship with the Lord. While he slept in a sinful relationship, Delilah cut his hair, symbolizing the severing of his relationship with God.

The Holy Spirit comes upon each of us at baptism bringing a new relationship with God. If we are not awake and vigilant, we too can be lulled to sleep by sin, and our relationship with God can be broken or weakened. Instead, following the example of the shepherds, we need to be on our guard, resisting temptation and keeping our focus on our Savior. The time of preparation before Christmas is an opportunity for each of us to ask ourselves: “Have I been sleeping spiritually? Where have I allowed sin to take root in my life?”

David, Saul’s guards

We find other notorious sleepers in an incident between a future king, David, and the reigning king, Saul. As the story of their relationship unfolds, Saul begins to see David as his enemy and seeks to kill David.

At a pivotal point in the story, David comes upon the sleeping Saul who is surrounded by sleeping guards. David could have easily put an end to the first king of Israel, but he stays his hand. David realizes that God had made Saul king and that it would be wrong to take his life. Later, David chides the leader of Saul’s guards, “You deserve death because you have not guarded … the Lord’s anointed” (1 Sm 26:16).

If we have been baptized and confirmed, we’ve been given responsibility to guard that which God has established — similar to the duties of Saul’s guards. In our day and in our culture God’s order is under siege.

Think of all the attacks against the dignity of human life and against the Christian understanding of marriage and family. Too many Christians are sleeping on the job, unwilling to oppose the cultural trends of our time and to stand up for God’s plan for the world.

We can imitate the vigilance of the shepherds by spending time this Advent getting more acquainted with the reasons that the church refuses to call homosexual partnering marriage, why assisted suicide can never be justified, why abortion is intrinsically evil, why contraception is disordered, and why capital punishment is problematic.

Christ has entrusted the truth to his church of which we are members. As the shepherds guarded what was entrusted to them, we too must guard what has been entrusted to us. Growing in understanding of what the church teaches is an important step in the right direction.

Apostles in the garden

Perhaps the most notorious sleepers were the apostles. While Jesus was deep in prayer with the Father — prayer that would change the world — the apostles were napping. Jesus rebuked them, “Could [you] not keep watch with me for one hour?” (Mt 26:40).

Advent calls us to prayer: prayers of love for our Lord, for strength in overcoming temptations, for our loved ones, for the church and for the world. The weeks before Christmas are often busy and tiring, but let us not be sleeping when we should be praying. God is asking it of us.

The shepherds knew their responsibilities. They were alert to the threat of evil; they protected that which had been entrusted to them; and they looked to the heavens when they heard the call of the angels (Lk 2:8–14). They were rewarded when they saw a newborn baby who had come to save them and the world.

Let’s follow the example of the shepherds — alert, faithful, awake, prayerful and ready for the coming of our Savior.

Flaherty is author of “God’s on the Phone: Stories of Grace in Action” (Servant, $14.99).

Blessing of a Christmas Manger or Nativity scene

In its present form the custom of displaying figures depicting the birth of Jesus Christ owes its origin to St. Francis of Assisi, who made the Christmas crè che or manger for Christmas Eve 1223. The blessing of the Christmas manger or nativity scene may take place on the vigil of Christmas or at another suitable time. When the manger is set up in the home, it is appropriate that it be blessed by a parent or another family member.

All make the sign of the cross as the leader says:

Our help is in the name of the Lord. R/. Who made heaven and earth.

One of those present or the leader reads Scripture, for example, Luke 2:1 (lines 1-8) or Isaiah 7:10 (lines 10-15, the birth of Emmanuel). Reader: The Gospel of the Lord. R/. Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.

The leader prays with hands joined:

God of every nation and people, from the very beginning of creation you have made manifest your love: when our need for a Savior was great you sent your Son to be born of the Virgin Mary. To our lives he brings joy and peace, justice, mercy and love. Lord, bless all who look upon this manger; may it remind us of the humble birth of Jesus, and raise our thoughts to him, who is Godwith- us and Savior of all, and who lives and reigns forever and ever. R/. Amen.

Source: "Catholic Household Blessings & Prayers", USCCB, $34.95.