By Hilary White
No one wanted to know shepherds in first century Palestine; they were outcasts, almost as low as a criminal subclass. So it has always struck me as significant that the heavenly host, those highest of all the high, should have come to them for the great announcement.
While the great of the world were looking the other way, the angels of God most high manifested to these lowest of the low a glimpse of celestial glory. The multitude of the heavenly host praising God and giving a message of assurance, one that could not be mistaken or ignored: “A Savior has been born to you, who is Christ the Lord.”
“Glory be to God most high! And on earth, peace to men of good will.”
Not all of us are blessed with large families and for many at this time of year, there is little to look forward to in the way of family gatherings. Canada is a large country and people become far-flung and scattered. Very often, friends, even those who do not go “home” for Christmas, are so far away that a phone call must suffice.
It is well to remember the outcast shepherds at this time of year and the deference paid to them by God. In our post-Christian, post-marriage society, the Nativity barely gets a mention and the Christ-free Christmas of George Bailey and Norman Rockwell often is only a painful reminder of what many of us cannot have.
The new Christmas has left us with no centre, no Real Thing which we celebrate. When it is reduced only to the “seasonal” iconography – the Christmas tree packed with wrapped presents, the turkey-topped table surrounded by family – is only a reminder of those things that circumstances have made impossible. So I am grateful that I am not seized by the annual frenzy.
So where do I look every year? I like to go to Church. I’m sure it sounds rather poor from the outside, but there I find the actual Real Thing, the centre to which the festivities are meant to lead. God, in His wisdom and mercy has made it impossible for me to look anywhere but the stable, and the miracle it contains that is greater and more real than anything in this world.
The great and hidden blessing of a life without family is that one is forced in the end to turn to the source. It’s a mixed blessing I admit, but at least I don’t need to work at making myself “feel Christmasy.” There is no need to manufacture it with aromatherapy, (though the solemn traditional liturgy of the Catholic Church in the Latin rite has plenty of smells to go with the bells.)
It is true that many of us feel as the shepherds did. We see off our friends a few days before the Big Day, and wonder what we will do. But this is the great secret. There is not one person on earth, no matter how blessed or sheltered, that does not experience at least a moment of dread and wonder if he is alone. No one escapes the fear of abandonment. And it is for us that the great announcement is meant, “…and this shall be a sign to you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
It is to those on the outside that the message of Christ’s mission to earth has the greatest meaning and gives the greatest contentment. He came to us, to rescue us. God most high saw the suffering of his people and did not send another prophet but came himself. The ultimate Insider, chose to become one of us and join us on the outside, remaking the meaning of the term.
Last year, I attended the Traditional Latin Mass for midnight Mass in a little church in Etobicoke. It was packed by ten thirty, and the great Christmas silence and awed stillness settled over us for the hour before Mass. Being a writer, (a graphomaniac really,) I had brought along a notebook.
I wrote, “In the dark, when all hope seems to have long ago been spent, when man has known, finally, his hopeless state, that he cannot climb back into heaven from which he is outcast. When despair threatens, then God speaks to him and says in a whisper over the crib and the tiny child, ‘Here is my mercy.’”
“The world expected a mighty savior, a king with armies. She is scandalized by the appearance of Christ, the Son of the living God, as a child, a helpless, poor, naked infant in the arms of his poor mother, protected by a humble working man. Soon, she will reject Him again.
“But tonight, how wonderful to come in to the warmth, out of the darkness, to watch in the place where angels fold their hands and bow their starry heads. Here is all fulfilled; all wishes granted, all wounds of loneliness bound up. Here in this gentle night, all weariness is rewarded. Here is futility undone, despair rebuked.
“The angels proclaim Him to the weak, here is your strength; to the sorrowful, here is all joy; to the helpless, here is your refuge.”
Now the darkness is confounded:
Gloria in excelsis Deo