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Throughout the accounts of the nativity story we encounter God working the extraordinary amidst the ordinary. During a recent advent, I found myself accompanying the shepherds in their journey—beside the sheep in solitude and silence.
“Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” Then suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests” (Luke 2: 8-14).
The life of a shepherd was simplistic, the daily tasks at hand were few and one day could easily flow into the next. Yet, a lack of attentiveness could put the whole flock at risk and without a shepherd the sheep easily lost their way. The needs of the flock were to always supersede one’s own, and this included the need for community to which we have become so accustomed. Due to a very transient lifestyle, company was but only occasionally found with fellow shepherds along with the animals they watched and for which they cared. Moreover, as they could not consistently observe the ceremonial rituals of purity prescribed by Jewish law, shepherds were considered among the lowliest of professions. Gone were the early days of Israel, as with King David, where their responsibility was respected; instead, they were included among the marginalized in Jewish society.
While certainly not a life easily undertaken by those who craved conversation or comforts, it did offer its own unique recompense. Under a blanket of stars and away from the hubbub of the city life they had time for quiet moments and reflection. I have often wondered if they, while aware their social standing, also recognized the value and purpose in their life’s work.
Even if they had, they most definitely did not expect to have been called out to receive the most magnificent angelic proclamation of the birth of the Messiah. With not one but a host of angels, breaking through the stillness and the darkness, hope was born that night. As Luke truly stressed, God moved from Heaven to earth—to the peripheries to reach all of humanity. Undoubtedly aghast at their divine invitation and despite any misgivings they may have had, their unexpected response was to make way for Bethlehem. Oh, the trepidation the shepherds had to have initially felt from the sudden marching orders and the impending arrival to a city, given their unkempt appearance!
Surprisingly, instead of a stately palace or grand estate customary to a King or “Lord,” they were welcomed by the small stable surroundings. Who is this king, that He would choose this as a birthplace, as a seat of governing, a site of lowly stature? Could it be that He has come for us also … and what does this mean for our lives? The peace the angels spoke of had to have meant more to the shepherds than an absence of physical conflict, yet resonated an inner peace of finally resting in God’s grace.
Consider: Do I believe that Jesus was born for me? What does this mean in my life, particularly for those times I feel alone, persecuted or marginalized?
© is the Director of Parish Ministries for Saint Paul's and Resurrection Parishes in Hingham, Massachusetts. She has Master of Arts in Religious Education. Reardon hosts the radio show, An Engaging Faith, and is also the presenter of Faces of Mercy. She is a writer at Theologyisaverb.com.
Why do Catholics venerate the bodies and body parts of saints? With the display of Saint Padre Pio in the news lately, it is something I have been wondering about. I know it is a much more common practice in Europe, but it is not something we are used to and it kind of creeps me out. Why not just pray for the saints’ intercession and let their bodies be at rest? I know, “Creepy!” Plus, why do Catholics have to keep doing things that make us look weirder and weirder to passers by? I admit there is something almost inexplicably strange about this particular Catholic practice. One minute you are wandering in prayerful reflection through the Basilica of Saint Dominic in Siena, Italy, and the next minute you are looking at Saint Catherine’s head and hand. Can someone say “morbid?” I have to tell you, it makes me a bit uncomfortable, as well. While individual Catholics might be squeamish, Catholicism is not a squeamish religion. We have a very “earthy” religion. There may be a desire to sterilize or “spiritualize” Christianity, but that is not authentic Christianity. In fact, there have been many times in history when certain groups of people within Christianity have denied the importance and value of the “earthy” stuff (things like the material world, the human body and so on). These movements can generally fall under the category of Gnosticism. The person, they maintained, was “trapped” within this material world and was only to be “set free from the prison of their body” in death. This is a heresy condemned by the church. Catholics believe that the human person is a body-soul unity. Humans are unique in that we are the only creatures (known to us) who are both body and soul. Angels do not have bodies, and animals do not have rational souls. This is what we are: not merely angels and not merely beasts. We are destined to live for eternity as humans. This means that we will be reunited with our bodies in the resurrection of the dead; some will rise to glory and some to condemnation. Basically, your body is you. Your body is good. Furthermore, “the body, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible, the spiritual and divine” (Pope John Paul II). To top it all off, your body is currently (if you are baptized) a temple of the Holy Spirit! This is why the bodies of the dead have always been treated with a great deal of reverence. Their bodies are treated as being an inseparable part of the person. In death, body and soul are separated, but in that separation the person is incomplete. Saint Augustine wrote at the end of the fourth century that the bodies of the deceased are “in no way … to be despised … (for they) are more intimately and closely united to us than any garment; for they belong to man’s very nature. …” From the very beginnings of the church, Christians venerated the bodies of the martyrs. Many masses were celebrated upon the very coffins of those witnesses. This is not worship of the dead. Saint Jerome wrote around the same time as Augustine: “We honor the martyrs’ relics, so that thereby we give honor to Him whose (witness) they are: we honor the servants, that the honor shown to them may reflect on their master.… Consequently, by honoring the martyrs’ relics we do not fall into the error of the Gentiles, who gave the worship of ‘latria’ to dead men.” So, when Catholics venerate the dead body of Saint Pio, this practice is rooted in history as well as theology. It is possible to ask the saints’ intercession without their bodies present, of course. But there is something special about the unique connection we have with another when there is some tangible presence available. It may be weird and semi-disturbing, but it is deeply Christian because it is all about the Incarnation, where God reveals himself by taking on our human nature, body and all.
In the night when you walk down the little sidewalk in the village of Chontal, you can look to your side and see a large cliff on the other side of the river that goes along the side of the village. At night, it is pitch dark. Just all black. Some time ago, I was sitting near the sidewalk with one of the neighbors and noticed one bright light shining from the other side, in the middle of the cliff. Someone has a farm there, my friend told me, and they just got electricity. They are pretty happy about it. As that single bright light in the midst of the dark stands out, it is impossible not to notice it. Now, let us say you were an artist, a painter. And let us say that you wanted to paint that image. You would need a lot of black paint. You would actually need to first cover the entire canvas with black paint. After that, all you would need is a tiny bit of white-yellow mix to put in one single spot of light. Then viola! A light in the darkness that you cannot miss. When you put a light in the darkness, it makes it stand out all the more. You need a whole lot of the black paint to make the effect. I say all that because Jesus is going to say—and show—that He fulfills not just the law, but also the prophets. You know the prophets. Doom and gloom. End of the world. Sin and punishment. War, famine, pestilence and the wild beasts. The prophets are writing about a lot of bad news and sins and problems with the Israelites. Then, all of a sudden there is this unexpected burst of good news, this hope and light. Go ahead and read them, it is the same thing again and again—a lot about the bad stuff the Israelites have done and the bad stuff on the way for them, and then a promise of miraculous and permanent salvation from it all. You know what the authors are doing? That is right, they are putting a lot of black paint on the canvas and one bright light. It is meant to bring all your attention to the bright light, because when you put a bright light in the darkness, it stands out all the more. The key to reading and understanding the prophets is to look for the light! Find that light in the darkness and follow it, because there is where you are going to find the son of God. That is where you are going to get the lift in your life—from the Bible. The magi from the east saw the star in the sky and they knew it was the one to follow. How did they know? Because they were experts on the prophets. They were great at finding the light in the darkness and following it and finding God’s grace. When the star came, they were ready. It is natural to want to get rid of the darkness in life. It is another thing to accept it and look for the light within it. If you practice looking for the light in the dark situations you face, you will get to find the hidden son of God. You will get a lift and freedom of life from God. Remember, when darkness comes it means that God is all the more findable. Look for the light. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
The baby found my belly. It seems every baby has gone through this stage where during or after a nursing session they are fascinated with and amused by my mid-section. Each time it has gotten softer—the skin that was five times stretched to fullness of life displaying the evidence of its past work more with each new life it is housed. A few more silver streaks here, some new creases there, the skin a bit looser and softer everywhere. Not to mention the quirky looking belly button that popped out and never went back in. The baby thinks it is hysterical. My husband says it is beautiful. My mom taught me that it is my battle scars. If our bodies speak a language, then I want mine to say that I gave. I do not want to be embarrassed that my belly was six times blessed to be swollen with life, my breasts filled and emptied tens of thousands of times. I do not want to look with disgust on the hips widened by the passage of five fully grown, fully healthy babies. I do not want to try to erase the creases caused by too loud laughter or sick with worry nights. I do not want to spend precious energy seeking cures for what is simply the risk of my vocation. I want to offer my body, given up for them. For Him. And I do not want to look like it did not happen. We will not have our bodies immediately upon death. But as Christians we do believe that at the end of time we will. Our bodies will be resurrected. While we do not know what that will look like, the fact that Christ's resurrected body still had the wounds of His love, makes me wonder if we, too, will still have ours. Perhaps at that point, viewed in the Presence and with the eye of God, they will not be deemed ugly or offensive, disgusting or embarrassing. Perhaps they will be our glory. Perhaps they will be a bit like His wounds, an eternal testimony that we chose to love beyond ourselves, to sacrifice our bodies for another. They will be the scars of a battle won. My battle is now. It is against powers and principalities and the voices of the world. It is not against others' flesh and blood but it is against my own. It is a battle to choose love, to give until it hurts, to be like Him, offering my very flesh and blood for the sake of another. It is a battle to reject the voices around us that scream our worth is in our youth, our purpose mere pleasure. And just like Him, we who are called to this vocation will often bear the marks of battle on our bodies. This is my specific call from Him. What a tragedy it would be if I were to die having preserved my body from any signs of that love. What a waste if at the end I found I could have squandered my energy on perfectly manicured hands and cellulite-free thighs. God help me if I stand in front of Him one day and have to answer for a talent buried in the ground, kept clean and perfect, but bearing no interest. I cannot bring Him much but I can bring Him this body, the wrinkles and scars a testament to how I tried, albeit imperfectly, to love. My goal, my calling, is to love and love—if it is real—costs something. It is an action. Mother Teresa said, “Love to be real, it must cost, it must hurt, it must empty us of self.” She had more pressing things to do than worry about her crow's feet or sagging skin. She was too caught up in love to be dissecting herself in the mirror. I will do what I can to be healthy, yes. I am weaker than I should be and I am obliged to care for my body in the way I eat and exercise. I honor Him by honoring how my body was designed to work—with real food from the earth and with real movement from work and play. I respect His design for my body enough to only use medicines and supplements insofar as they help my body to function as He created it. I can be more open to life and available to love when I take care of what He has give, yet I refuse to mourn that using my body in love will leave its mark. If my back aches let it be from carrying one of His children. If my eyes grow weak, let it be from straining to see the little people around me. I do not want to be a person whose eyes are turned inward, mourning what we all know is passing anyway. I do not want to grasp at the exalted body of a teenager, a body that has never known the joy of a baby's smile, drunk with milk from its mother’s breasts, a body that has never known the triumph after the last agonizing push as new life slips out from it and into aching arms. I want to rejoice that He gave me the opportunity to love and I want to honor that this love was so real it changed my very skin and bones. If we are to be running a race, I hope to show up at the finish line sweaty and aching, knees bloody and heart pounding. What I want is to reach the end of my days, wrinkled and worn, scarred and used up. I want to give it back to Him and say, "This is what I did with what you gave me. I lived. I loved." No doubt I will grapple a lot with letting go of the image of me in my head, an image formed by the world's eye, to meet the reality of what I have become, what I hope is an image formed by His. But I will try. I want to be a woman who gives my assent to continue that fiat started long ago. Be it done unto me, Lord, even the stretch marks. I do not want to look back and regret what I did not give and when in doubt, I hope I will err on the side of giving too much. I want to reach the end of my days having held nothing back. I want to reach His feet, exhausted and scarred from the battle, and hear Him say those words, "Well done, my good and faithful servant. The battle has been won."
The leaves crunched underfoot as I walked down the narrow, bumpy path. I stopped briefly to inhale the crisp, fresh fall air. I viewed the splendid trees that were anxiously waiting to greet me on this path I chose to travel this day. The leaves on the ground were like a fall coat of many colors—several different shades of red, pale yellow and brown, some bright yellow and, a few, a blend of copper with a splash of deep purple. I also noticed some persistent, perhaps even stubborn, green leaves that were still desperately clinging to the tree they had grown accustomed to throughout the spring and summer. These leaves intrigued me with their stubborn pride, refusing to let go and to allow the change to happen within them. These determined green leaves reminded me of my struggle to let go of my need to control situations and people. “If I had my way,” I thought to myself, “I would scotch tape these green leaves to the tree, so they would never have to go through this painful process of letting go and letting God change them.” As I continued my walk, I began to realize that it was indeed time for me to let go. It was time for me to surrender to the fact that I cannot change another person no matter how much I love that person. I tried, just like the stubborn leaves, to feverishly cling to my way of manipulating a change. It left me blaming, judging and condemning. I thought to myself: Perhaps by allowing God’s grace into the situation, I can learn to trust that God will take care of my loved ones just as He so gently takes care of the leaves that effortlessly fall to the ground. The tree knows it will be left barren and stripped for a season of waiting. Yet, the tree also trusts in the Creator that after a season of patient waiting, life will once again bud forth, filling the branches with the glorious new birth of magnificent and vibrant green leaves. As the gentle breeze beckoned the leaves to let go and float gently into the Creator’s hands, I also mentally released my hold on my loved ones. I gently placed my loved ones and myself in the palm of His hands, trusting in God’s glory to shine forth through the darkness. I ended my walk with renewed hope, knowing I have entered into a season of patient waiting, placing my trust in my Creator to make all things beautiful in His time. “He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside quiet waters, He restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake” (Psalm 23:2-3).
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