Center Lines - December 2007

At an ecumenical clergy breakfast the week before Christmas, Father Jim Dutko, of the St. Michael's Greek Catholic Church in Binghamton, brought photographed copies of the icon below for each of the dozen or so of us gathered.  Later in the day, he sent an accompanying meditation, which I have included below.
Although I have a few of them, I generally do not turn to religious icons to help me in my devotions or study.  So I was surprised to find that this icon had struck a deep chord within me; one which the meditation richly enhanced.  How often I need to be reminded that Christ came for all, not just for the learned and wise; not just for God's own humble people; but to be that great joy for all the world.  I could think of no better Advent, Christmas and Epiphany message to share with you.  May we place ourselves in the presence of the Lord, in these seasons of joy and blessings, and always.

- Mark

The First Visitors
The elaborate nativity scenes we assemble in our homes (and the occasional public space) during the season of Advent usually display more figures than the Holy Family alone. Jesus and his parents are often surrounded by angels, attentive barnyard animals and (sometimes just a short distance away, as if their journey is almost complete but not quite) the three "wise men from the East," whom the Gospel of Matthew mentions as the first human visitors to pay homage to the Christ Child.

Over the centuries those astronomers have been transformed in our shared cultural imagination into wealthy kings, crowned and bedecked in sumptuous robes, fitting attendants for a monarch destined to rule over all nations. Only in Matthew's Gospel are the wise men first on the scene, however. Luke's account of the nativity tells us that the lucky first arrivals to the manger were local shepherds, alerted to the birth of Jesus by an angel of the Lord. 'Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened,' they decide immediately, 'which the Lord has made known to us.' In our modern nativity scenes and crèches, these shepherds usually receive short shrift in favor of the exotic scholars whose study of the heavens showed them the way to Bethlehem. It is a little harder, perhaps, to sell ourselves on the thought that shivering, dirty-faced teenagers in coarse tunics should be the first royal retinue for the King of Kings.

St. Francis of Assisi, who is credited in legend with building the first Christmas crèche, would likely have preferred the poor shepherds, simple peasants with no gifts for their Savior but their reverence and devotion. According to St. Bonaventure's account of the legend, Francis' original nativity scene in the Italian town of Grecio in 1223 was for him a living devotion. The ox and the ass were real creatures borrowed from neighbors, and on the night before Christmas almost eight centuries ago Francis himself stood watch over the manger, "full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy." Standing behind him in homage were the local peasants of Grecio. Many of them would have been shepherds, too, leaving behind their own flocks to join Francis in this new celebration of Christ's birth.

The first visitors of Luke's account have another important link to the story of Jesus that goes beyond their proximity to the manger. They tended their flocks in the region of Bethlehem, the erstwhile home of Israel's most beloved shepherd boy, David, who even when he was in the entourage of Saul still returned to tend his father's sheep at Bethlehem. The flocks these shepherds cared for could well have been the descendants of the sheep David watched over so many generations earlier; some of the shepherds themselves might also have been descendants of the royal line. Not surprising, then, that Luke's angel of the Lord who appears to the shepherds makes the connection explicit: "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord."

The child of Jesse was another unlikely king, born of humble roots and knowing the simple existence of a shepherd before he was chosen by God for a different life. "I took you from the pasture and from following the flock, to be ruler over my people Israel," God tells David, before making him an astounding promise: "I declare to you that the Lord will build a house for you: When your days are over and you go to be with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son" (1 Chr 17:10-14). From the line of one shepherd came the Good Shepherd, born homeless but to be the great builder of his Father's house.

Both Gospel accounts of the first visitors to the Holy Family offer us a valuable reminder. Shepherds and Magi; ignorant and wise; manual laborers and bookish scholars; Jews and Gentiles; poor and rich; bringing offers of material gifts and showing outpourings of spontaneous devotion. The catalogue of differences between the two groups is vast indeed, but there is one striking similarity. When they realized the good news that a Savior had been born, neither suffered second thoughts. Both abandoned their tasks, one group leaving the sheep under their guard, the other perhaps dropping their sheepskin parchments, and struck out to place themselves in the presence of the Lord. They remain for us today a reminder that Christ came for all, not just for the learned and wise and not just for his own humble people, but to be that great joy for all the world. 

By: Reverend Mark Marino On 12/21/2007