And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Today’s reflection begins with a good news bad news observation. The bad news is that there are many things in life that we cannot change. We cannot change some of our physical attributes, like our height, or lack of hair. We cannot change some of our mental attributes—though some of these can be managed. We cannot change some of our life circumstances—some people who are single can’t seem to find the right person to marry. Some people who are married can’t seem to find happiness. Some relationships and friendship disintegrate, leaving one or both parties unhappy. Some people are stuck in a dead end job. The economy challenges all of us and it does not seem to be getting better. You get the idea.
The good news is that there are many things we can change, or at least get a better handle on. There are lots of mental challenges in the world today—so many people are tired of being sad, stressed and anxious. Thankfully there are ways to get a better handle and manage some of these challenges. Some might be as simple as taking deep breaths, praying and exercising. Some might involve more work, like therapy, or medication.
Some people find themselves in a state of sadness because of sin. There is a fix for this, thankfully, and it is called repentance. Thankfully in the Orthodox Church, we have a sacrament of confession where we own up to our sins, a priest guides us with some ideas for how to repent, and then we receive absolution, which effectively wipes out past sins, giving us a clean slate and we are able to move forward. The fact that we have this sacrament, and this opportunity, is one of the greatest strengths of Orthodoxy, in my opinion. I can’t imagine being part of a church that would not afford people this opportunity, myself in particular. The fact that I don’t have to sit in sin for years and years, with guilt and shame weighing me down is very comforting.
Many of us relate to the shepherds. We sit in our circumstances, on the outside looking in on things we wish were different, shivering in sin, or shame, or sadness. This Christmas season proves difficult for many people. I read somewhere the other day that the majority of people don’t have much joy in this season, which is sad. It is kind of like the shepherds sitting outside of Bethlehem, no doubt hearing the crowds, the parties, the music, and wondering “why not us? Why can’t we partake?” I’m sure there are many people in the world, and probably many people reading this message who are just going through the motions this December. As if in a haze, we put up our decorations, we buy our gifts, we even go to church, and we wonder “Why? What for?” We know we ostensibly go to celebrate the birth of Christ, but what does that even mean, when life is filled with stress and sadness? Come December 26, in two short weeks, this will be over and it will be on to more of the same.
In the 13 days we have left until Christmas, think about how this experience can change you. The shepherds returned to their flocks after their encounter with the Lord and it changed them—they were glorifying and praising God, and they were not doing that previously. They didn’t know God. Knowing God didn’t change their job, or their social standing. But it did change them. And this is the great hope, and perhaps the only hope, for those who are struggling. Knowing God can change YOU. It can’t change the world around you, it might not change your circumstances in the world, but it can change you.
There is a big internal struggle that I have and it involves giving Jesus the wheel of my life, so to speak. It seems that I (and I’ll speak personally, not to cast judgment on anyone but me) struggle with the ideal of building my life around Jesus, with the reality that I’m really building Jesus around my life. I don’t understand why certain things happen or don’t happen in my life and rather than throwing it over to Him, I still leave Him as a consultant that I bring in once in a while and really try to just figure it out on my own. Which doesn’t work a lot of the time. I think of those shepherds, and when the angels came to them and said, “Go to Bethlehem and see the newborn babe, the Savior who is Christ the Lord.” They could have easily said “what’s the point, this isn’t going to change anything.” But they went, with open hearts, and it changed them, even though it did not change their circumstances.
The hymn that ends today’s reflection talks about the many gifts offered by creation at the Nativity. It says the shepherds offered their wonder. What else did they have to offer? As we think of what gifts we are going to offer to those around us, think of a gift that you can offer the Lord. Psalm 50/51:17 says “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.” When we offer our hearts to God, especially when they are open, and empty, then they can be filled with God’s grace. My prayer for me this Christmas, and my prayer for you, is that we will approach the Lord with an open heart, like the shepherds did, and that He will fill it as only He can, so that when this season passes, even if life doesn’t change, we can each have an internal change, returning to life but able to praise and glorify God with a renewed spirit and a heart that sets its hope on Him.
What shall we offer you, O Christ, because You have appeared on earth as a man for our sakes? For each of the creatures made by You offers You its thanks: the Angels, their hymn; the heavens, the Star; the Shepherds, their wonder; the Magi, their gifts; the earth, the Cave; the desert, the Manger; and we, a Virgin Mother. God before the ages, have mercy on us. (Kekragaria, Vespers of the Nativity, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Personal Reflection Point: What is so remarkable about the shepherds returning to their everyday lives?