Once upon a time, on a hill far away, shepherds herd their flocks. As they graze in a field, they happily go “baa-baa” to each other. And as usual they discussing life and the weather. Suddenly, they hear a “moooooooo!” They look around and see only sheep. They carry on grazing as before. “Moooooo!” One sheep can hear it all too clearly next to him. He shuffles away a little from his friend with a worried look on his face. He asks “George, why are you mooing. You’re a sheep. Sheep go baa!” His friend replies gladly, “I know. I thought I would learn a foreign language!”
We need to take notice here. St. Matthew does not tell us that the angels appear to religious leaders, or to influential people. The angels announce good news first to the poor and those rejected by the society- the shepherds.
Could it be? Could it be that St. Matthew learns a foreign language?
In the words of Benedictine Sister Verna Holyhead, it is unlikely that shepherds are in communication with angels. They are “unrighteous, unpopular people on the margins…materially poor, often suspected of conniving in theft, and often recipients of the wrath of other shepherds or landowners…religiously, their handling of sheep render(s) them ritually unclean.” So, why does St. Matthew write that they are the first to announce the message of the angel? Because they “watch and keep awake on the hillside,” she says. And it is the poor, or the rejected, or the hated who are the “more grateful watchers” of a message from God. And I bet that these types of people form St. Matthew’s community- people who resemble shepherds: the homeless, the poor, the rejected and those who flee their countries because of persecution.
Notice though whom the shepherds seek out in Bethlehem- other poor, rejected people: Mary, Joseph and the child laying in an animal trough, pleasantly called a manger.
Could it be that St. Matthew speaks a foreign language to those who need Good News?
Before the time of Christ, the Jewish people needed words of comfort as they sit in exile in Babylon. God raises up a prophet like Isaiah the priest. And this prophet speaks words of hope. “No longer,” he says, “will they call you forsaken or forgotten…they shall call you the land that God ‘Frequented,’ a land that God visits repeatedly.” This prophet speaks a new language to his people who sit in hopelessness because of exile.
How can you and I speak a foreign language this Christmas season and in the coming new year?
Allow me to illustrate: Muslims and immigrants are in the news a lot. The news media and politicians speak on and on about refugees and about our borders. Often these same people are “associated” with terrorism. And some very important people say we need to register them so that we can surveillance them, including those who are American citizens. This is when WE CHRISTIANS learn a foreign language. One such Christian group who learns to speak a new language is the people of the World Church Service of Lancaster, PA. Last year, they settle 407 refugees from around the world. And this year, they promise to settle 550 more refugees in their town and in the surrounding areas. They come from Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Congo, Ukraine, Belorussia, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Palestine, Bhutan, Nepal, Burma, and Sri Lanka. Many of them are not Christian and yet it is the Christians of Lancaster, Pa., who find homes, jobs and food for these refugees. Want to know how they learn to speak a foreign language? It is their faith founded in the Mennonite and Amish Churches. They are the peace churches of the Christian denominations…and they put the rest of us Christians to shame.
In the words of St. Titus, a disciple of St. Paul, God saved us not by our deeds but out of the depths of his mercy. Since we receive such great generosity from God, why do we not share it with others? We do not know mercy if we fear. We do not know mercy when we remain in prejudice and bigotry. When we continue this behavior, we develop “groupthink” as Americans. This keeps us safe because then we do not need to learn a new language about other religions, immigrants, refugees and strangers from Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
Remember the hymn of the angels after the announcement of Good News to the shepherds: Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests. This is how I am going to pray that Christmas peace rests upon me. I am going to continue to dialogue with my cousin. My first cousin is of Polish and Irish descent and she is a Muslim. I will contact some of my Muslim friends and ask them to take me further into the Qur’an. If St. Matthew learns a whole new way of thinking about outsiders and strangers and outcasts, so can I learn a new language. Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests! What foreign language will you learn as you pray for God’s Christmas peace? Merry Christmas and a very happy new year to you all!
The Rev. Fr. Dr. T. Becket A. Franks, O.S.B.
Christmas Day 2016
Readings from the Mass at Dawn
The adoration by the shepherds
Copyright St. Procopius Abbey