In the spirit of the season, I invite non-Christian and non-religious readers to bear with me and read on…
Even though it is Boxing Day, we are still in the season of Christmas that runs until the 6th of January, the twelfth day of Christmas (today being the first day - after Christmas). January 6th is known as Epiphany which means divine “manifestation” and refers to the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles (non-Jews) in the form of the magi (traditionally known as “the wise men”).
Eastern, Orthodox Christians will celebrate Christmas On January 7th, as this date is based upon the Gregorian Calendar (used before the current Julian calendar we use today) dating for 25th December.
Today I am preaching at Dudley Church, having arrived home on the morning of Christmas Eve. I will share with them a message about the significance of the first people to see the Christ child. Given that many Fijians will have a quiet Christmas in the wake of last week’s cyclone it is fitting that our focus during Christmas shift from the “three kings” from the east who brought precious, expensive gifts to the “newborn King”, to the humble shepherds who were the first to hear the good news and to bear witness to this event.
Often we go straight from the story of Jesus being born in a stable, to the announcement of his birth by angels to shepherds in the fields, to the arrival of the magi/wise-men. In doing so, we often miss an important point. The part of the nativity story that includes the shepherds usually has them as merely bystanders. They just happen to be in the field where the angels make their heavenly announcement. They are the “also starring” actors in the scene in the stable, along with the animals, and the magi to see the baby Jesus.
However, that the hosts of angels would appear to these shepherds and that they would be the first evangelists (sharers of news of Jesus’ birth) takes on special significance when we realise the social standing of these shepherds.
The shepherds were simple men who lived simple lives. By simple, I mean they were ordinary men.
There was nothing fancy about them. Except maybe the sheep. It is believed by some that the sheep that grazed there were not ordinary sheep.
Because of their proximity to the Temple at Jerusalem, the fields of Bethlehem were primarily the domain of temple sheep. These were often the sheep used in the animal sacrifices offered in the temple. In the first century, more than 250,000 sheep were offered annually as sacrifices at the festival of the Passover alone. These shepherds of Bethlehem were responsible for delivering healthy, unblemished sheep to be offered on the altar for the atonement of sin.
The life of a shepherd was a life of loneliness and labour, danger and poverty. Yet these hardships may not have been the greatest of their difficulties.
Because of their profession, shepherds were considered ceremonially unclean. Their work required their hands-on participation in the birthing of lambs, which brought them into contact with blood.
They also at times had to dispose of dead lambs which brought them into contact with dead bodies.
Both of these activities made them ceremonially unclean. This resulted in them being spiritual outcasts.
It's ironic that the very individuals who may have been responsible for raising sacrificial lambs for the Temple in Jerusalem were themselves excluded from the temple because they were considered ceremonially unclean.
Banned from the religious system because they were shepherds, they had to look somewhere else for hope. That night, they found it in the angel's message. It was to the shepherds, the first notice of Christ's birth was given. It was not given to the political and community leaders and the chief priests in Jerusalem.
It was given to the common shepherds.
These shepherds were isolated from their people and their Temple. Then they discover from the mouths of angels that they were not cast out or forgotten by God. They were the first to hear: "Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord."
This message of hope to the shepherds was a message of hope to all the world.
For us in Fiji the greatest gift we can possibly give each other is the same gift that God gave these shepherds on the day Jesus was born. The incarnation of the Christ in the world signified the reconciliation between God and humankind. It was expressed in the radical social inclusion that Jesus practiced by sharing food, touching, embracing and living with those considered unclean, unworthy and often, unnecessary.
Our island nation has just experienced a cyclone that had no distinction of race, economic or social status or political or religious views, but struck with fury all who were in its path.
The gift that we receive this Christmas that we can all give, and give to all, is the gift of an open heart, an open mind, and open arms to accept and embrace each other, regardless of any perceived differences. It is to lift up the vulnerable and marginalised members of our community and show them, by action not just words, that they are important to us and society. It is to make the stranger our neighbour, and make our neighbour our friend and brother and sister.
It may be the greatest gift you can give. The only cost may be our pride.
“Simplicity, serenity, spontaneity”