Sunday 31 December
Year B: The First Sunday of Christmas
Liturgical Colour: White
- Psalm 148: 1-14
- Isaiah 61: 10-62.3
- Galatians 4: 4-7
- Luke 2: 15-21*
*(The Church of England gospel reading today differs from the Revised Common Lectionary, which is Luke 2: 22-40)
Much is made of the fact that it is the lowly shepherds who are the first people after Mary and Joseph to greet the Christ child. (The first creatures being the animals around in the stable of course.) This is often interpreted as Jesus coming first and foremost to the meek and poor, especially since they get there ahead of the kings of Matthew’s gospel who arrive up to two years later, or for us, next week!
However, there may be other reasons why the shepherds played such a prominent role in the birth narrative. Shepherds form a large part of Jesus’ lineage. The patriarchs had flocks of sheep that appeared in many of the stories of the Old Testament. David, in time to be King of Israel, cared for the sheep as his younger brothers went to war. Job had many sheep before his downfall (Job 1.3), and even more afterwards (Job 42.12). Indeed, it was only after the time of the exile that shepherding as a way of life became devalued.
Furthermore, a shepherd cares for and nurtures their sheep, feeds them, rescues them when they get lost, binds up their wounds and heals them, and afterwards restores them to the flock. There is no wonder therefore that Jesus was soon to be called the Good Shepherd.
I was very struck by verse 19 in our gospel reading today. It follows the shepherds jubilantly proclaiming far and wide about the good news of Jesus’ birth to anyone who would listen.
‘But Mary treasured all these words
and pondered them in her heart.’
I remember when I first became a failed atheist I was so full of joy at the faith that I had found that it was almost literally bursting out of me. Like the shepherds, I couldn’t wait to tell people all about it. I am not sure how good an evangelist I actually was. I do know that I was in far too much of a hurry and far too gripped by certainty to even think about it; or indeed to wonder how people with a different experience to mine might hear what I was saying.
A few decades have passed since then and I have slowed down a bit, and after much prayer and study, I realise how very little I can actually be certain of in terms of the words I use to describe my faith. (It is still very much there, more so than ever, it is just that pinning it down with words is proving more elusive.) So much so that I tend to do much more pondering than proclaiming these days. Part of that is recognising that whoever I meet has something to teach me about God and I don’t want to miss it by talking over them. But also, especially recently, I find myself not wanting to either offend or defend those with varying understandings of our shared faith.
I have been happy to fall back on the words attributed to St Francis of Assisi and much contested: ‘Preach the Good News at all times: use words if necessary.’
Actions usually do speak louder than words. However, I think I might have let pondering become procrastination. After all, we are told we should always be ready to give an accounting of the hope that is within us (1 Peter3.15). I will give it some thought!
As we say goodbye to 2023 and welcome in 2024 it is natural to look back over the past calendar year. We might remind ourselves of the really significant events both for ourselves and the world we share. We might think of the joys and the achievements, and perhaps, the sorrows and regrets. But we also remember in this season of Christmastide, Jesus came to live amongst us to offer a new way of living and loving. As we bring all of our memories into our worship, we have a choice to make another new start, and even perhaps even to learn to proclaim afresh the Good News in actions and words.
Happy New Year!