Monday, December 24, 2007

Certain Poor Shepherds

Christmas Eve Homily

Last year, someone informed me that when she was a kid, she thought that the Three Kings brought the baby Gold, Frankincense, and Mirth. I smiled for 24 hours. I wrote about it on my blog, and someone commented that when he was a kid, he had confusions about Certain Poor Shepherds.

The way this young person puzzled it out, “to certain” must be a verb, meaning,” to reassure,” so the angels came to reassure some poor shepherds in their fields. Which is not far from the mark, after all. This young person, when told the “real” meaning of the carol, that the angels appeared to “particular” shepherds, wanted to know why some and not others? A young Universalist in the making!

That got me to thinking about other meanings of the word “certain.” Here’s another possibility. They were not “reassured” poor shepherds, or “particular” poor shepherds, they were “confident” poor shepherds…sure of what they have seen and heard. They see an angel in the sky, and nobody says, “Ho, boy, it must be indigestion” or “I’m so stressed out I’ve started imagining things!.” They are certain: it’s an angel. The angel says “Go and See!” and nobody asks if by any chance this is the devil in disguise, or moans about a long walk into town: they Go and they See. They are sure that what they are seeing is their next king in that cold stable, and that’s good news to the poor.

Angels appearing in the sky with crystal clear messages makes for good stories, but it’s never happened to me that way, or to you, I’d wager. The times I’ve thought, maybe, I felt a nudge from God, the message was kind of…well, let’s just say, subtle. Easy to ignore, easy to miss, not at all clear. Never angelic voices. Mostly just a feeling; at a concert, on the bus, hiking, reading, listening to someone. The messages only come when I really need them. They often have a shine of good feeling with them, but no hosanna’s, no voices, no heavenly lights… nothing certain. Always a matter of “hints and guesses, hints followed by guesses,” as the poet T.S. Elliot complained

My experience, really, is much more like what the Magi’s experience must have been: You see a new star in the sky. What does it mean? Who knows what it means? Maybe nothing. maybe Everything. There’s an obscure prophesy about a baby or is it a king? Or is it just restlessness, boredom, avoidance?

Most people, even Magj, would have stayed at home by the fire. They’d have responsibilities, doubts, plans of their own to easily trump the lovely new star. The shepherds had it easy. Big voices. Bright Lights. Clear Instructions. Go and See the Baby! The Bible says they went, but there are any number of folk stories about the Shepherd who stayed behind. Someone had to tend the flocks, after all, and there’s always a skeptic in the crowd. That would be me. Maybe it would also be you.

Certainty or not, the task of our lives to follow the hints that come to us, whether in heavenly voices or, more likely, in the voices of friends, authors, musicians, teachers, and that still, small voice inside us.

They urge us to grow in love and spirit,

and remind us that the journey begins with single, tentative steps.

They urge us to open our hearts to what comes into our lives,

and remind us that it is the unexpected that is often the greatest blessing.

They urge us to look inward.

and remind us of the jewels beyond price that reside there.

They urge us to appreciate the world around us.

and make the things of the world our sacred teachers.

They urge us to give away what is precious to us,

and remind us that when we give in joy, we receive one hundred fold.

They urge us to test our voices and discern our best path,

but remind us not to turn away from new faith and new hope, waiting for a certainty that may never come.

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