Message from Father Nick 93

Looking at the Crib (II)

To borrow someone else’s slogan – a Crib is for life, not just for Christmas. Nor, we might add, is it only for children. The child-like nature of St Francis of Assisi’s faith should not mislead us about this: his intention in making the first manger scene was one of great theological maturity. And even if our most moving crib representations are to be found in children’s nativity plays, they too carry the same deep meaning,

The ox and ass figures, as we have noted, have been added from outside the gospels – from Hebrew prophecy. They summon us to truly know God, and so to keep our hearts open to the message of Christ’s birth (Isaiah 1:3). And the presence of a heavenly host reminds us how easily we can neglect the spiritual dimension of our lives.

Animals and angels, however, do not fully share our human experience. It is the shepherds called by the angel who bring humanity to the crib. [The wise men of course are human too, but they arrive on the scene much later, and they find Jesus in “the house” (Matthew 2:11). We will see a little more of them next week.]

But why are shepherds the ones called to witness Christ’s birth? Scripture scholar Raymond Brown says that for “modern romantics” shepherds have taken on the gentleness of their flocks, whereas in Jesus’ time they were often considered to be dishonest and to live outside the law – in that respect, their presence would be a powerful message of inclusion. But, he adds, there is also a strong symbolic link with David, the shepherd-king and archetypal “Messiah”. Bethlehem was David’s home.

And there is more, belonging to the very pulse of Bible story. Yoram Hazony, the Israeli philosopher believes that shepherds are its central figures: “Ancient narratives” he says, “are usually about heroes of royal or noble birth. But the biblical History of Israel is something quite different. It is a story about shepherds. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and his brothers, Moses, and even David, are all shepherds.”

At the very beginning, he argues, it is Abel who refuses to accept the curse of tilling the ground – of “serving” it in the Hebrew expression. Instead, like Jacob – who actually wrestles with God – he is pro-active. He is a shepherd who makes things happen, and God approves of his initiative. We think of Jesus’ encouragement that we too should use our eyes, our ears and our intelligence. Like the wise men’s gifts, these very human faculties have their own place in our crib – as we bring them with the shepherds to the Son of God.