Angels and Shepherds

On a dark Christmas Eve, in a church blended into the New England countryside, a pastor spoke not of the birth of Jesus, or the labor of Mary or the journey to Bethlehem. Instead, he spoke of angels and shepherds. Seated, fingers wrapped tightly around the microphone, chalky white and hairless countenance, he drew deep breaths between paragraphs and then sentences. His voice and face were alive with the image: it was as if he could see those angels, felt that role and knew their mission. But when he turned to the shepherds, it was just the same: he embraced their shock, their humanity and humility, their interface with the divine. He glowed with the sense that God is with us wherever we are, especially in those liminal moments when life changes and things are somehow never the same again. And he was betting those shepherds, whose lives are long lost to history, were deeply impacted. More importantly, fragile but strong, weak but powerful, he was inviting the congregation to do the same: to hear the angels, to allow ourselves to see and experience far more than what we ordinarily grasp. He even challenged and firmly denied the idea that dissatisfaction with life and rejection of faith is the fault of the church. No, he placed the responsibility squarely with the shepherds (and we are all shepherds of sorts), to realize the manifestations of the divine. When he was done, having drawn laughter and provoked thought among the congregation, he stood up slowly, cautiously, graciously, and leaned on the altar for support. A cascade of applause rippled through the pews. He deferred it with a grin, “You might not feel like that after the second collection.” Clapping yeilded to laughter. Seemingly effortlessly, he became a shepherd transformed by angels.

Christmas offers that chance to each of us, to begin to see the world differently, let go of the past, and embrace what is with alacrity and courage. Trusting that miraculous moments unfold everyday means pausing to listen more than simply hear, to truly observe more than see, and to dare to believe in something greater than self. There is the matter of trusting ourselves to be the shepherds, to embrace the surprise, to tell and then re-tell the story, explore and celebrate meaning and purpose, to be sensitive to the element of the divine in the texture of human experiences, to be open to the idea that there is a God who acts for and in and through humanity.

It defies rationality, perhaps. Maybe it defies secularism or minimizes the scientific. But the reality of that possibility was etched in that pastor’s voice, emanated from his person with each word. Maybe, in reminding that there is more to life than we ordinarily see, maybe he was more angel than shepherd that night. Maybe he was reminding us that angels can sing in the voices we hear everyday, in the presence of those who cross our paths and in the quiet rising of the sun. Maybe in the practice of kindness, in the touch of compassion, in the choice of gentleness and the decision to love, we become as he is, able to be both angel and shepherd, a home for wholeness that is alive in holiness.


The glow of Advent candles is strong with this final weekend before Christmas. Elderly Elizabeth welcomes Mary with open arms and recognizes who the younger woman really is. Freed of convention that would label and judge, moved by the Spirit, Elizabeth sees what IS, that Mary is the mother of God. And so the world is bathed in new light. And the light is all about the presence of God. And the truth is that we all live in the presence of God everyday. Advent is the time ot reflect on HOW we live in that presence. In so many ways, to dare to do that, acceptance of one another with open hearts and welcoming arms is essential. In this world, the flickering flames are showing more and more the need for forgiveness of self and others. Like Mary, we are each all too human.

The implications of that are amazing, and the swift rhythm of Psalm 80 pulls towards that sense of presence. “Lord,make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved.” God’s face has billions of facets: each of the faces we encounter is one shimmering glimmer of God. To carry that just a step further and juxtapose it with the meeting of Elizabeth and Mary means looking more deeply at what is before us. To see the face of God, to turn to God, means to know forgiveness, to be able to forgive, to process forgiveness, to enable forgiveness, to be forgiveness for each other. The burdens of guilt and shame are weighty, self-imposed and redefined by the public humiliation that so often accompanies it. Advent and Christianity itself are calls to that reality.

Christmas, often heralded by the brilliance of holiday decoration and spirit, is actually the birth of second chances, of third chances or fourth or even fifth. It is about remembering the planks in our own eyes as well as the eyes of others and re-embracing life and others as tenderly as a newborn is cradled and caressed. It is recognizing that there are times in life when we are all in need of such unbounded love, such acceptance for our fragilities. In Mary, Elizabeth saw what was most real, most honest, and she proclaims that. There is no harshness, no condemnation, but an acceptance of what is.

We are all the owners of clay feet, all more than the images that cast our shadows. There is a simplicity to the reality of life’s brevity, the contours of brokenness and the incomprehensible ways we hurt one another. But there is a boundlessness to infinity and to the thousands of ways forgiveness can be part of the Christmas miracle. It is in this moment that realizing the strength and courage we can give one another is birthed in willingness to see, to accept, to forgive and to live together. Restoration is moments away if we allow that. Advent is leaving behind the layers of wrapping that comprise life and believing again in the beginning, starting over, and making peace possible. It all starts with forgiveness.


Third week of Advent: JOY! As Christmas draws near, the tremulous joy of children echoes in new generations. Frenetic stressors grip adults with unyeilding strength, and the lights of the Advent wreath flicker through the darkness. Darkness settles early now, and strings of sparkling lights punctuate night with unexpected brilliance. So it is with daily experiences: buried in the busyness are the moments truly worth treasuring. This year, Loss and Grief have become companions more than distant acquaintances. It is not just COVID or the political turmoil and vitrolic debates, not the threat of climate change or the consequences inevitable with the emergence of technology. Change has stretched past the comfortable and familiar into ambiguity and the unknown. There we dwell. And there we are reminded that the most essential factor is that we are not alone, and joy can be known in spite of broken hearts and twisted paths and incomprehensible circumstances.

Advent is the reminder that God is present in the world, and that we live within the wonder of the divine presence with or without acknowledgement of that. This year, there is a freedom in that very remembrance, a recognition of something beyond self: a God who welcomes, encourages, gifts and connects in the rolling poetry of the prophets and the dynamic prose of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. There is a rich assurance in the passage:

Your kindness should be known to all.
The Lord is near.
Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, 
by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, 
make your requests known to God.
Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding 
will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

There is also an implicit reference to leaving the stress and freneticism behind, beginning to believe that it is enough to be who we are and to acknowledge that there is a God who is near and cares tenderly for the concerns of hearts, that it is possible to find peace in trusting that there is a God who is near. It is not about rules but about relationships: living kindness with each unfolding opportunity.

Most striking is the call to kindness in the Gospel. There, it is very clear that as humans we live within parameters of governments and insitutions, but there is room for choice, for the practice of kindness at every turn. Interesting that it is not about adhering to rules but living kindness where we are. Tha capability exists within us, waits to be chosen. Maybe that is what it means to believe in God, to live in the presence of the divine. We are who we are at every moment; in every instance, we are enough. We can easily forget that Loss and Grief become companions because Love exists. And true love, the real thing, is the source of JOY. Kindness reaches across the chasm of loss with the reality of love. Kindness is our choice, the building block of relationship and the beginning of joy. Ours for the living! Happy Advent!


This second week of Advent, the second candle of Peace is lit. Together with the first, the Candle of Hope, it glitters against the early darkness. In so many ways, the frenzy of holiday preparation overshadows those two flames. But to stand back for even a moment, the glimmer opens up a larger picture: we are stronger together than we are alone. Light, even the flicker of a candle, offers new perspectives that eluded us before. Light gives us the chance to think about what we can see, what is present to and in us, and where and what we need to be. Light gives us the chance to make the winding road straight, to see the good works that are begun in each of us, and to dare to believe that love discerns what is of value. Light gives us the vision to face our fears and the courage to trust our perceptions, the gut instincts that open up new pathways and redefine the past.

Advent enables us to consider what has gone before, what is now, and what can be in the future. It is the invitation to believe deep down inside ourselves that we are loved, worthy and deserving of love, capable and daring enough to love. Life is diffcult, and love is mysteriously experienced in all sorts of ways. Truly believing that Love exists means thinking carefully about what love actually is. This second week of Advent links readings about love with a candle for peace: love is the way of peace and presence. Love is neither gratuitous nor self-aggrandizing; it is not deceitful or dishonest or duplicitous. It simply exists in real ways, gently, generously, bravely. And somehow, it makes the crooked ways straight. The “real thing” of love is that it is a God-given and brings the companionship of deep and abiding peace, the sense of “home”. In a universe often anchored in alienation and isolation, love ensures that we are better together than we are alone.

So much masquerades as love, and centuries show the agony of the way that humans torture one another in its name. There are agonizing choices and painful boundaries and limits to what humans are capable of. And then there are those almost incomprehensible, wondrous moments when all the stars align, and a glimpse of what love really is emerges with a genuineness and integrity that invites going deeper. Having that depth of trust, the commitment to honesty, the embrace of mutual respect makes it possible. It gives life purpose and direction, a confidence and clarity that illuminates every other aspect of human ineraction and experience. Love makes us who we are if we dare to believe, to experience, to know.

In so many ways, Advent is the beginning of that invitation to accept the existence of real love. Advent confides the truth that this love links the human and the divine in the very ordinary matters of each day. Advent gifts us with hope that the risk of loving and being loved is one worth taking.