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.

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