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bullet Monthly Letter of the Vicar of Oystermouth

The Vicar writes...

Dear friends,  

            During the Advent run up to Christmas I often find it helpful to reflect on the different ways the four Gospel writers celebrate the mystery of the incarnation.

            Mark’s Gospel, probably the first to be written, totally ignores the story of Jesus’ birth.  He begins his telling of the Good News with the arrival in the desert of the somewhat eccentric forerunner, John the Baptist.  For Mark, the incarnation is more to do with the ministry of Jesus as the ‘Son of Man’ than the actual details of his birth.

            St Matthew, who we think wrote sometime later, gives us a little more information.  He tells of Mary’s miraculous pregnancy, the dilemma faced by her fiancé Joseph, the guiding star, the scheming King Herod and the visit of the Wise Men with their gifts of mystic meaning. 

            In Luke’s Gospel we read of John the Baptist’s miraculous birth, the annunciation to Mary by the Archangel Gabriel and the enforced journey to Bethlehem where there was ‘no room at the inn’ for the Saviour of the world.  Luke writes of the manger, the shepherds and the song of the angels.

            Then St. John, who probably knew the story of Christ’s birth better than most, because he had taken the Virgin Mary into his home, condenses the event into one cosmic and magnificent affirmation of faith, ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’   

            This Christmas the Church calls us to reflect on St. Luke’s account, which tells of the shepherds who were visited by angels as they ‘watched their flocks by night’.  He gives us this part of the story because he wanted to emphasise a number of things about the mystery of Christ’s birth.

            First, it’s a recurring theme in the Gospels that a new beginning for the world is heralded in by angels.  Angels, as their name suggests, are ‘messengers’ of God.  They are present at the new dawns of Christ’s birth and at Easter’s empty tomb.  While St. Matthew has his guiding star, Luke has the glory of God and throngs of angels who light up the night sky and proclaim ‘Peace to God’s people on earth.’  They announce to the shepherds the birth of the long awaited Messiah and tell them that they will find the Christ child wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger, an animal’s feeding trough. 

            Shepherding was originally seen in the Old Testament as a high and noble profession. The patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were all nomadic keepers of their flocks. The great King David started out as a shepherd boy. In the Book of Psalms and in the prophets the relationship between God and his people was often likened to that of a shepherd and his sheep.

            Yet by the Holy Land of the first century those who looked after the flocks were often maligned by the religious people of the time.  For shepherds were not able observe the strict requirements of Jewish ritual, especially its hygiene laws.  They were not always welcome in the towns and villages. Some rabbis included them in the list of those outside the community of faith, ‘tax collectors, sinners and shepherds’. 

              So Luke tells us about them to remind us that the priorities of God’s Kingdom often reverse those of this world.  Though the first visitors at the stable may have been regarded as lowly people God blessed them and raised them up. They heard the song of the angels and saw the mystery of God’s coming to earth.

            But Luke takes us even further, for the visitors to the stable were not just any shepherds.  It’s very likely that they were keeping watch over the temple flocks in the fields around the City of David.  Bethlehem’s shepherds ensured a continuous supply of unblemished lambs for sacrifice as sin offerings on the altars of the great sanctuary in Jerusalem.  Luke, in his telling of the Christmas event, celebrates how the shepherds who looked after the temple lambs saw the ‘Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’

             Some years, as we celebrate the Christmas festival in Church, we hear St. John’s or St. Matthew’s perspective on the mystery of the incarnation.  At the Vigil Mass this coming Christmas Eve we will reflect again on the words of the Beloved Physician, Luke.  As we sing our carols and make our communion on this holy night it’s my prayer that we will see what Luke’s shepherds saw so long ago - the glory of it all!

With every blessing for a Happy Christmas and peaceful New Year. Nadolig Llawen.