Advent week two. Decorations going up. Hallmark movies. Plans re-examined. Memories resurrected. Just as the desire for calm deepens, stress ramps up. And so this moment arrives, now, and the invitation is so clear: “Welcome one another just as Christ has welcomed you”. Romans 15:7.
Advent is a time of preparing to welcome, beginning to see yet again with fresh eyes and an open soul, to celebrate becoming and being human in the truest sense. This morning, in the early morning liturgy, the priest raised the broken host at the consecration. In that Host rests the brokenness of humanity: the reality that each of us, all of us, are broken. Physically, emotionally, socially, we walk in the reality of who we are. And yet, we are creatures capable of offering healing and comfort, kindness and grace to one another. To welcome one another means embracing the fragments of self and other and trusting in the healing presence of God for strength and comfort. But welcome comes not only in the liturgy.
Waiting so often precedes the warmth and wonder of welcome. Waiting for a child after school, for a ride from a friend, for a conversation. That all implies some suspension of time, of attentiveness to a moment simultaneously about being and wanting. And then the rich satiation floods the space: needs met! Embraces after a long day, car doors popped open, words and laughter and being understood. That sort of waiting is the work of the shepherd, living fully attentive to the needs and movement of that flock. And while the flock meets the shepherd’s need for purpose, the shepherd meets theirs as well. Caretaker, healer, encourager, the shepherd’s roles are multiple. And chief among those are the ones fashioned around welcoming and watching, balancing and being. The point is that the shepherd’s role is fully interactive and relational. It involves decision-making and kindness, practicality and sincerity.
Shepherds play a seemingly humble role in the narrative of Christmas; images of shepherds appear on cards and calendars, in Christmas pageants and holiday parades. The visuals are romanticized and child like, and yet, these very shepherds welcome us to the waiting that is Advent and the realization that is Christmas. They are reminders that welcoming one another is not something reserved for either the strong or the powerful. It is not a privilege reserved to the ordained or awarded to the hierarchy. Instead, welcoming is a task and a privilege that belongs to each of us, the least and the greatest, the humble and the honored. Each day of Advent is a promise that we are both flock and shepherd, that waiting is okay, watching has its benefits, and working for the benefit of each other is critically important to all.
That warmth of welcome is the gift of Advent’s second week. The first reading poetically summons images of wisdom and peace, the lion laying down with the lamb. The Gospel reading frames John the Baptist and the stark demands of his message. In some way, John hints of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that “the spirit of the Lord will rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and counsel.” (Isaiah 11:2). Still, the chance to welcome and to care is squarely in the hands of the most humble of all: the shepherds.