Friday, December 24, 2010



We are so used to symbolic shepherd figures in both the Old and the New Testaments that we are likely to miss an important point that Luke is making when he tells us that Jesus’ first visitors were shepherds. Of course Bethlehem is the city of David, the shepherd who became the greatest king of Israel, and of course his descendant Jesus is born in a cave-sheepfold. But there is more.

Luke is always careful to give prominent roles in his gospel to people usually considered of little importance in the society of the time: women, the poor, sinners and especially outcasts such as Samaritans and lepers. Included in this last category would have been shepherds; they were poor, they had no permanent address, were thus suspected of being thieves, and were generally considered undesirable by respectable people. Because of their unsavory reputation shepherds were often not allowed inside the walls of a town.


I say mass every Sunday at Saint Augustine’s Church in a poor neighborhood nearby. Each Christmas morning the sisters (Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity) invite all of the “clients” of their daily soup kitchen to come to 9:30 mass and then go downstairs for a Christmas dinner prepared and served by volunteers. In good missionary style, of course, anyone who wants to come to dinner has to show up for mass first; after mass each person receives a little card with a number written on it. No mass, no card; no card, no dinner.

For the past few years I have had the humbling privilege of celebrating this mass. In one section of the church nearest the altar are seated dozens of people who the sisters know by name but who respectable society would consider "undesirable." These special guests fit perfectly the description I gave of the shepherds a few lines above: they are poor, have no permanent address, are often suspected of being thieves and are generally considered undesirable. Because of this unsavory stereotype they are regularly excluded from certain stores and other buildings downtown.

On Christmas morning, however, these modern day counterparts of the shepherds are invited by the sisters,

,,,,,,,,,,Come to Bethlehem and see
,,,,,,,,,,Christ Whose birth the angels sing;
,,,,,,,,,,Come, adore on bended knee,
,,,,,,,,,,Christ the Lord, the newborn King.


Giving a Christmas homily to these outcasts of society is always a joy. I don’t have to remind them not to get too caught up in all the consumerism and the materialistic aspects of the Christmas holidays; they can only imagine what it's like to spend too much money on luxuries. I don’t have to encourage them to imagine Jesus being cold and hungry and poor; they don’t have to imagine those things, they live them all the time.

It may be relatively easy for a poor person to believe that God could come down and be born as a baby, but it must be very hard to remember that this God who was born poor and humble, knows what you’re going through every day. And it must be even harder to believe that Jesus really came to save you. When you’re used to being ignored by society and mistreated by almost everyone around you, it must be really hard to believe that Somebody Important knows you by name, that God the Almighty Creator, who has the world in his hands, loves you, you especially – loves you so much that he died for you. These beautiful truths must be hard for modern-day shepherds to believe at Christmas.

Pray that the Spirit may give me the right words to say tomorrow morning, so that I may somehow convince them that it is all true. May the Lord let me convey to the shepherds in Newark the word that the angel spoke to the shepherds that night in Bethlehem. “I bring you good news of great joy, which shall be to ALL the people.”

And may the Lord who was born poor and unnoticed pour out on you and on the whole world his richest blessings for a happy and grace-filled Christmas!


  1. Amen Father. The poor suffer, I will try to be more open to the opportunities to serve.

  2. This is truly beautiful. Thank you for sharing your post with us all.