Take a moment to ask God to give us grace this Advent season

by Fr. Stewart Murray
this article appears in the December issue of Crosstalk, the newspaper of the Diocese of Ottawa

One of the most intriguing traditions that surrounds the celebration of Christmas is that of Nativity scenes that are found in our homes, Churches and communities. They come in every shape, size, material and a rainbow of colours; brightly coloured ceramic sets from Mexico, handcrafted olive wood sets from the Holy Land and even hand coloured paper ones created by children in Sunday School projects. These often crowded scenes filled with images of the holy family, shepherds, wise men and assorted cows, sheep and even chickens, give the impression that the first Christmas was a busy and people filled event. This popular expression of the manger scene misrepresents the events as found in holy scripture. This incredible event, according to the scriptures, was not an earth shattering event with all the world taking notice, but an event in an obscure part of the Roman empire involving a poor couple who could not find even a simple room, but only a stable, in which to give birth to their only child. The people of Bethlehem, concerned with all the demands of everyday complicated by the influx of people coming to be registered for the tax census, were unaware.

In our nativity scenes the one group that is often over looked, and who were there on that Holy night as it was unfolding, were the shepherds.The shepherds, who are often found somewhere in the background of the Nativity scenes behind the wise men, as if in a secondary and not too important role.Yet the shepherds can give us some insight in our walk of faith and be an example to us as we prepare to celebrate Christmas. The shepherds were responsible for the care and protection of the sheep and the goats, a mainstay of the local agricultural economy. They spent their days and nights out in the areas around Bethlehem, moving their animals constantly to look for food and protecting them from harm. They had to be people of courage, who also possessed a knowledge and understanding of the local environment.They had to be constantly on watch for changes in the weather and the world around them. Their concern was not for themselves but for the animals placed in their care, and for their families and communities that depended on the animals for food and trade. If you have been fortunate to be out in the country, perhaps at a cottage or camping, and away from the bright lights of the city, you soon notice both how really dark it can be and the brilliance of the stars and moon at night. In the city we miss the glorious heavens because all the lesser lights of the city obscure our vision. This is why I think only the shepherds heard and saw the heavenly hosts that first Christmas. The shepherds were focused not on themselves and their challenges and problems but they were looking out and up and they caught the heavenly vision. I have found that in the rush of planning for Christmas I often fail to stop and look up from my own needs and challenges to see the beauty in God's creation and in the lives of the people with whom I live and work. In stopping, looking and listening to the world around us, we are opening to the possibility of seeing God's presence in the midst of all the noise and confusion. Perhaps we need to take a moment to offer a prayer of thanksgiving in the midst of the gathering of family and friends for the gift of each one of them. Take a moment to look up at the wonder of the star filled heavens and thank God that out of love for you, the One who created the wonders of the universe became like one of us to bring us back to Him. Take time to listen with an open heart and imagination to the words of sacred scripture during Advent and the Christmas season and hear Christ speaking to you of mercy, hope and challenge. Take a moment to ask God to give us grace to see him in the midst of the round of our daily routines.

Finally as we gather in our Parishes to celebrate the hope and promise of Christmas, take a moment to thank God for all who are gathered with you and to rejoice that he has called us in all our fragility to be the body of Christ in the world.