Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Shepherd at Christmas

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him…” (John 1:1-3)

This passage forms the opening to the Gospel of John which tells of the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God Who shared in the creation of the world. These lines from John’s Gospel echo the opening words of Genesis, which tells us that “in the beginning” God created light, land, and water, and every kind of animal that moves upon the earth, and finally God created man in His own image. And God gave mankind dominion over the earth and over the animals and plants that grow there. Humans are responsible for tending to God’s creation.

Whatever our occupation or vocation in life, we participate in some way in nurturing God’s creation. Whether we build things with our hands or design things with our minds or move things from one place to another, we are answerable to God, and He will judge whether we make proper use of the created world He has bestowed upon us. Genesis tells us that we are the pinnacle of His creation. We are the greatest of His creatures. And so we have authority over the animals and plants of the earth because they are lesser creatures. We are responsible for their care. God has charged us with this task, but we can only succeed if we learn well our vocation and follow God’s Will.

Now, Joseph was a carpenter, and we assume that Jesus learned this trade in His youth. But as a vocation, as a life-calling, Jesus referred to Himself as “Shepherd.” This defined His task in the world. Certainly all shepherds care for the created world and have dominion over their flocks as God intended. But as the Good Shepherd, Jesus did not tend real sheep. Jesus’ flock is of the human race. Jesus came to have dominion over us who are created in His image. In this way, we who were charged with tending creation must ourselves be tended. As the Son of God, Jesus surpasses us who are merely created beings, and so He has the right to declare dominion over us.

In this way, the Son of God came down to fulfill that mission…

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14)

As the Good Shepherd, Jesus indeed cares for His sheep in the same way that we would care for those under us. And He set about this task immediately: The infant Jesus was laid in a manger – a word that means “to chew” or “eat.” A manger is where food is placed for animals to eat. Just as we are charged with feeding and caring for the lesser creatures in our midst, so the Son of God cares for us who are infinitely less than His divine Being. Every shepherd must build a manger and stock his barns and set aside pastures and farmland, and thus they provide for their flocks. At Christmas we see the infant Son of God laid where lesser creatures gather for food, in a manger filled with straw. God has provided food for His flock. God comes down from heaven and feeds us who are lesser beings, like sheep in need of a Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays Himself in the manger as food for His sheep.

When we read that “The Word became flesh…” we must recall too the later words of Jesus in John’s Gospel. The Good Shepherd assures us, “My flesh is real food.” (John 6:55) And so the Shepherd of mankind has provided food for His sheep. As His sheep we gather to partake of what God provides. Every Christmas should point us toward the Eucharistic feast that is God’s own flesh.

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