Jesus, our Shepherd

“And there were in the same country, shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night” (Luke 2:8).  It was the shepherds outside Bethelehem who first heard the news of Christ’s birth.  These men and boys often lived at the edge of society, doing hard and lonely work in all sorts of weather.  In many ways, the shepherd was the “average working-class Joe” of Jewish life.  To some people, being a shepherd was among the lowest kinds of work.  It was physically demanding but vital to the economy of the Jews.  Shepherds lived mostly in the wild with only a wool wrap and a simple cover to protect them from rain, wind, scorching heat and freezing cold.  Shepherds ate only what they could carry:  bread, cheese, olives and if they were lucky, some figs and raisins.  They had to be versatile and adaptable to all kinds of situations; ready to rescue any strayed sheep and carry any injured one back to safety to nurse it to health.  Dangerous predators roamed the hills around Bethlehem and shepherds armed themselves with slingshots and heavy mallets to ward off the attacks of bears, lions, wolves and jackals.  Sometimes they would pull thickets of thorns and brambles together to make a pen for their sheep at night.  The shepherd would then lie down in the gate opening to close it off and protect his flock.

The connection between a shepherd and their sheep was so close that he could recognize the sounds made by each of the ones in his flock.  Likewise, the sheep knew and would respond to the voice of their shepherd.  “My sheep know My voice and I know them and they follow Me” (John 10:27). This “closeness” to their work also meant that shepherds were often unbathed, dirty, and smelly.  The nature of their desert work meant that they had little access to water and could only very rarely keep the elaborate cleanliness rituals of faithful Jews.  They were in some ways, outcasts and loners, dirty and looked-down upon by others.  In a word, they were God’s delight. Because God delights in choosing the lowly and marginalized to do His work and receive His blessings.

The Bible is full of references to sheep and shepherds.  Old Testament saints like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and David were all shepherds at one time or another.  Jesus as our “Good Shepherd” is a beautiful image from Sacred Scripture.  In our time, the words “pastor” and “bishop” both derive from ancient words meaning “shepherd” and “guardian” and the staff of the bishop is still the shepherd’s crook.  It was appropriate then, that shepherds became the first Christmas guests.  We don’t know the names of the shepherds out on the hill that night with their flock surrounding them.  Because they were just those “average Joes” working the night shift, their legacy is anonymous.  But for a moment, try to imagine what it must have been like for them.  It’s a cold, quiet evening, talking with your friends around a fire.  The conversation always seemed to come back to the Romans, to politics.  Occasionally, the bleating of a sheep causes eyes to scan the hills for any sign of wolves.  Not tonight.  No, it’s just another cold quiet night on the job.  And then—–LIGHT!  Not just the light of daylight, but daylight a million times over!  The night sky blazes with an army of huge, shining men in armor surrounding and overwhelming them with their light and song.  “Do not be afraid,” the clear and beautiful voice rings out from the one closest to the shepherds.  “A Savior has been born to you!”  The angels spread out their arms and the glory and radiance of heaven is spilled out over the whole sky.  “Glory to God in the highest!” rang out the thunderous cry of the army of God.  The joy of heaven flowed down to earth that night and into the lives of the shepherds of Bethlehem.  For our great and almighty God has the heart of a shepherd.  So it was fitting that shepherds be the first to know.  And what did the shepherds do?  They didn’t stop to debate what it all meant, to argue over theology or form a committee.  No.  They ran.  They ran to the manger, ran to meet their King, ran to the Baby, to fall down on their knees and worship Him, Emmanuel, God Is With Us.  May we all have the heart of a shepherd this Christmas Eve.

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Light in the Darkness

It’s the middle of another December and the darkness of the winter season is all around us.  The oak leaves are brown and crunchy underfoot on the cold ground.  Frost has burnt the leaves of the rose bush.  The nights are long and the blue-white stars shine with a steely cold light.  And yet we know that after the depths of winter, spring will come again.  At the root of that empty oak tree is the spark of life that will force the green leaves in just a few months.  Inside the frost-bitten bush is the sleeping rose bud that will awaken in the warmth of spring.  Memory consoles us in winter with the hope of new life.  We remember summer’s warmth of long days and soft nights; the abundance of our sun-kissed gardens and the green lushness of field and valley.  Even in winter’s darkness, we carry in our hearts the light of summer.

God formed our remembering hearts, to seek Him and to long for the light of His love.  He knows how very much we need Him and yearn for the Truth which only He can give us.  And so He chose to come to us in the darkest days of winter, when His light would shine the brightest and when the consolation of His coming would be most welcome.  Heaven came  to earth in the Blessed Virgin’s holy womb; her sacred “yes” inviting the Infinite to make His home among us.  But this King of all Kings didn’t come to rule, but to serve.  He doesn’t demand homage, but seeks to be in a relationship with each one of us.  The great “I AM” comes to us as a shivering baby in a backwater manger.  That very night, the winter skies were filled with angels and the light of heaven used a star to shine forth the way to Him. The light of that singular star is reflected today in every twinkling bulb on our Christmas trees, and in every candle flickering on our altar.  The sanctuary lamp burns brightly near the Tabernacle of every Catholic church in the world and proclaims that Christ is here!  Just as He was in the manger, or the Upper Room, or on the Cross, or arising from the tomb.  The uncreated Light that rolled away the stone and banished darkness forever, that made the earth and hung the moon in place, that raised Lazarus from the dead and cured the sick and walked on the water—that same Light comes to us at every Mass.  And the angels that dance around His heavenly throne, and who heralded His birth to the shepherds, kneel with us around the altar in loving adoration.

And so in these darkest days of winter, again He comes to us.  In the darkness of our lost and sinful world, again He comes to us.  In the sinful, secret corners of our guilty hearts, He comes to us.  “The Light of the world” (John 8:12) comes to love us, to know us, and to save us.  He comes to bring us to Himself in all-embracing Light.  He comes to heal our broken souls and bind up all our wounds.  In the winter darkness of our sins and failings, our addictions and our weakness, when we can see nothing before us but cold, barren ground and the loneliness of doubt, He comes to bring us new life and hope.  Christ, our Light, conquers darkness forevermore.  Come, Lord Jesus!

From Tony Agnesi

Today I’m sharing something from my friend, Tony Agnesi. Tony is a renowned Catholic author and speaker. I know you’ll enjoy his reflection on Advent as much as I have.

Welcome my friends to Secular Advent!  For those of you who are not familiar with the holiday season, it began several years ago and has grown into the biggest secular holiday of the year.

Secular Advent used to begin on Black Friday.  Now it begins with Grey Thursday, right after Thanksgiving dinner, Greed can’t wait for an entire day of giving thanks, especially when we forget who to thank!

The worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful, and has nobody to thank.–Dante Gabriel Rossetti

There are other minor holidays during Secular Advent. Holidays like  Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday.  Secular Advent continues all the way until Return Unwanted Gifts Week!

For those of you who celebrate the Christian Advent know that Secular Advent is the antithesis of this.

Secular Advent asks us to speed up and spend money now!  Christian Advent asks us to slow down and prepare for the coming of our savior Jesus Christ.

Secular Advent asks us to spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need, under the pretense that “it was on sale!”  Christian Advent asks us to be thankful for what we have and to give to those who have little.

Secular Advent asks us to fight for our rights for the last big screen television at Walmart. We must fight even if it means we have to kill for it, or at least start a riot.  Christian Advent asks us to pray for peace in the world.

Secular Advent reminds us that seven year-old’s need an iPhone 7, an Xbox and Play Station gaming systems.  After all, they deserve it.  Christian Advent reminds us that some children will have no gifts at Christmas.  Wouldn’t it be nice to buy something for a child who has little or nothing.

As for me, I prefer the Advent of our Christian faith.  And, so as not to get caught up in the hype of this secular holiday, here are a few things I am going to do.  Maybe you might try these too:

1. I’m going to slow down and enjoy the advent season. I’ll enjoy the beauty of winter closing in, snowfall, and family and friends.

2. As a Catholic, I’m going to attend mass every day  this advent season.  I’ll focus on the coming of Jesus, not only on Christmas day, but his second coming as well.

3. I’m going to increase my prayer time. , I’ll especially to pray for those who will be sad because they have lost a loved one this year.

4. I’m going to help someone in need, a family member, a friend or just a name from the giving tree or Salvation Army list.

My protest will be a quiet one, a silent one.  I will just choose not to take part in the madness.  Instead, I’ll try to concentrate my thoughts and deeds on throwing off the works of darkness and putting on the armor of light.

Please join me this Advent.

Thank you, Tony! Read more of him at tonyagnesi.com