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Summary: We should emulate the shepherds, and be thankful for their witness.

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Christmas Dawn Mass 2014

Thirteen Days of Christmas

“Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord; the Lord is God and He has enlightened us.” These words of today’s Gradual psalm are the centerpiece of the Christmas dawn Mass Scripture readings. St. Paul tells us that the kindness and generous love of God, our savior, has appeared. Jesus, Son of God become son of Mary, is the kindness and generous love–the hesed and emet–of God in the flesh. We were lost in sin and error and He graciously came to us and, through baptism and participation in this Eucharist, He justifies us by His grace so that we may inherit eternal life and all the other benefits that come with being children of God.

As light dawned over Bethlehem, down in the cave that was their temporary home, Mary and Joseph may very well have been slumbering near the feed-box that was Jesus’s short-term cradle. There was a commotion outside. They were in a stable, perhaps with a few stray cattle bedded down nearby, so they couldn’t have been surprised that a shepherd peeked in to see what was happening. Instead, several shepherds entered the cave and told a wonderful story. They were tending their flocks around midnight. The sheep were hunkered down inside a sheepfold made by heaping up dirt on three sides. The shepherds kept watch by forming a human door that no predator would dare transgress. As they dozed, a great light shone around them and huge and beautiful heavenly messengers appeared. They sang “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to men of good will” and told the shepherds that a child, a king had been born in Bethlehem. So they came and found the child with Mary and Joseph. After a while they returned to their sheep–they had left one on guard–and related the tale of the infant and his two obviously impoverished guardians.

The dawning of light over Bethlehem signaled one of the first days of winter. But the first days of winter are also the harbingers of the death of winter, and the return of light and life. December 25 is the first day that it is quite clearly longer than the day before. From December to the end of June, the days will get longer. Spring will inevitably come. Then, from the end of June to the end of the calendar year, excepting that last week, the days get shorter and shorter as the earth moves around the sun. In its wisdom, the Church places the Nativity of Christ near the winter solstice, and the Birth of John the Baptist six months earlier. Why?

John very famously said when his disciples complained that Jesus was taking his place, “He must increase; I must decrease.” John was a very popular preacher, but he knew his place. John was only there to point the way to one coming after him, the true Messiah of God. John also said of Jesus that He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. So the birth of John is rightly celebrated as the beginning of the end of the Old Testament. The birth of Jesus is rightly acclaimed as the beginning of the rebirth of humanity.

Both John and Jesus would shed their blood in witness to the Truth. John’s martyrdom was a great testimony of faith, but the death of Jesus was a sacrifice that would change everything. The Lamb of God died and truly took away the sins of the world. When blood and water came out of His heart, the water became the lifegiving bath of rebirth we call baptism. The blood became the sacrificial reality of the Eucharist that we celebrate, the communion that we share. Before the death of Jesus, our death was just a tragedy. After the death and resurrection of Jesus, our death could be a triumph.

Let’s not forget what the shepherds did after they saw the child, and Mary and Joseph. They glorified and praised God, and shared the story with their neighbors. The result is that Bethlehem retained for decades the tale of the shepherds, and when Jesus died and rose again, the local lore was able to find the cave where He was born. So, today, when you take pilgrimage to the Holy Land, you will see a great basilica–oldest in the Holy Land–erected over the cave of Nativity. Adjacent to the basilica is a Catholic parish where you can attend daily Mass. We owe all this to the testimony of some long-dead, impoverished shepherds, the first followers of Jesus. And we also ought to do as they did–glorify and praise God, and share this marvelous story with everyone we know.

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