Christmas is a time for memories and I’ve been replaying the annual Christmas pageants of my childhood. I am certain that I’ve been a shepherd the most. The role of shepherd, while important to the story, is not the focus of the story.
When the night of the pageant arrives a flock of bath-robed, stick-with-a-crook (made from bent clothes hanger and wrapped in brown paper bag)-wielding shepherds makes its way down the center aisle toward Mary and Joseph and the Babe. They nervously stand alongside a host of angels who are heavenly in their tinsel halos and cardboard cut-out wings.
These shepherds fidget and squirm because they have nothing else to do. They appear uncomfortable because they’ve come to a very crude nursery to look at someone else’s baby. These impish shepherds are nervous to be on stage but possibly not as nervous as the audience who watches in anticipation for something to happen.
In my fantasy version of the story of Christmas I’d have the cast assembled on cue as the Christmas story is read. But then, I’d have the angel of the Lord step out to the edge of the stage and shout out to the audience, “Hey, you! Fear not! For behold I bring you good news of great joy…”
I’ve always considered my pastoral vocation as something akin to a shepherd but as I reflect on the work I now do as a Presbytery Executive I realize that I had a too-romantic notion of what shepherding meant. I envisioned my role like the shepherd of Psalm 23 or the Good Shepherd as Jesus talks about in John’s gospel when in reality I’m more like the shepherds of my childhood pageants.
No doubt the first shepherds were doing a good job. They knew the right places to pasture the flock. They kept a watchful eye on the sheep protecting them from attack. The night of Jesus’ birth started out as a typical shift in the vocation of these shepherds. But then, the angel of the Lord announces, “Fear not…”
Yeah, right! I’d be quaking in my sandals if an angel of the Lord and a multitude of the heavenly hosts appeared before me irrespective of the news – good or bad.
My roles as Pastor and Presbytery Executive have provided me with opportunities to witness many moments of incarnation and most of them had nothing to do with the season of Christmas. Like the visions from spirits of pageants past, present and future; I see myself oddly dressed, awkwardly silent and fidgety in these moments. I am certain that an angel has announced, “Fear not” but quite honestly some of these moments have felt more like an episode of “Fear Factor.”
Did the shepherds understand what they had witnessed? Luke says that the shepherds returned glorifying and praising God. My recollection of childhood pageants is that when the story was finished, the kids would rush to the pews where our parents and grandparents waited. The silent night would erupt with a joyfully chaotic chorus as everyone breathed a sigh of relief that the story of Jesus’ birth had been retold without incident. But for the kids it was all about the gift we would receive at pageant’s end as part of the Sunday School gift exchange and the bags of fruits, nuts and candy that were gifts from the Session.
Do I understand what I’ve witnessed in the moments of incarnation? Sometimes I believe that I do only to realize that it is a futile attempt on my part to control the moment. Many times I find that a truer understanding comes after I have relinquished my grip on the moment.
May God open our eyes to witness the moment of incarnation. May God calm our nervous and fearful hearts to experience the moment of incarnation. May we find ourselves loosening our grip on the moment so that God can gently take our hand. May you be a part of the Incarnation as retold by shepherds and angels of various kinds this season.