“I live over the store.” We are not accustomed to hearing that expression much anymore. I suspect that is so for two reasons. The first might be termed a sociological explanation. With increased prosperity, it is no longer necessary for people to live where they work. The suburbs sprang up, in part, because people could afford to live more comfortably apart from where they engaged in commerce. The second explanation is clearly more psychological in nature. People fare better when they are able to put some distance or separation between their working “selves” and their living “selves.” People enjoy better mental health and endure less stress when they can work in one place and live in another.
Being able to separate working and living has not eliminated every problem, however. What about when there is a police emergency? When there is one, you the proprietor are called. What if a water main breaks and there is a flood? You the owner are called.
On balance though, most people prefer having their work in one domain and their living in a different sphere. That having been said, could we still allow that “living above the store” has more than just a nostalgic appeal? Yes, I think we can.
In today’s gospel, the evangelist describes the Infant’s birth as having taken place in Bethlehem. (cf. Lk 2:4) After the birth, the Virgin wraps the Christ Child in swaddling clothes and lays him in a manger. (cf. Lk 2:7) Apart from the Holy Family, the only persons present for this blessed event are the shepherds. (cf. Lk 2:8) They are, as the text indicates, astonished at what has occurred and the angels announce to them a message of great joy: “For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.” (Lk 2:11)
It is not just the wonder and awe of the shepherds which should catch our attention. For the gospel says of them that they are living in the fields, keeping the night watch over their flock. (cf. Lk 2:8) The shepherds are completely devoted to the work at hand. The fields constitute both their work and living space at the same time. For the shepherds, there is no time away, no distance or separation. Work and living are not neatly compartmentalized, each with its own distinct allotments and priorities. In a manner of speaking, the shepherds do indeed live over the sheep, their work.
For their dedication and commitment, the shepherds are deserving of commendation and praise. What word then is fitting for them? Surely, we cannot call them “fair” or “mediocre”; no, they are much better than these assessments. Let us call them good then. On second thought, let us call them not good enough.
In the course of His public ministry, Jesus is asked what good must be done to gain eternal life. (cf. Matt 19:16; Mk 10: 17; Lk 18:18) To attain eternal life, Jesus answers, one must keep the commandments. (cf. Matt 19:17; Mk 10:19; Lk 18:20) But there is more to this encounter between Jesus and the rich young man. Jesus adds in the accounts rendered by Saint Mark and Saint Luke that no one is good but God alone. (cf. Mk 10:18; Lk 18:19) Explaining this remark of Jesus, Pope John Paul II writes in Veritatis Splendor (1993) that “[o]nly God can answer the question about what is good, because he is the Good itself.” (9)
There is no denying that the Incarnation is a very big mystery. It has to be – creation is correspondingly very big. However, the restoration of creation begins very small. It begins with a Baby. And in the manger, that Baby is a Shepherd even if He is yet to identify Himself as such.
Christmas reveals the radical incompleteness of earthly things. The gospel tells us that magi from the east (cf. Matt 2:1) came to Bethlehem and offered the Infant gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. (cf. Matt 2:11) One interpretation of Little Christmas is that the magi were kings. If so, their kingship now becomes forever subordinate to Christ’s eternal kingship. As committed and faithful as the shepherds are living in the fields, they are seeing for the first time in the birth of Christ what it means to be a good shepherd.
Jesus proclaims Himself to be the Good Shepherd in Saint John’s Gospel. (Jn 10:10) He guides and directs even from the manger. He can do this because the wood of the manger is like the wood of the Cross. The Cross is the gate to which Jesus refers in the tenth chapter of the Fourth Gospel. (cf. Jn:10:9) Whoever enters through the gate of the Cross finds life, an abundance of it. (cf. Jn 10:10)
All shepherding, then, remains unfulfilled until it can promise eternal life. In the One who lies in the Bethlehem manger, the promise of eternal life has indeed been actualized. To share in it ourselves, we must follow wherever the Lord leads, careful to hear His voice above the cacophony of other voices, and making His word the very center of our lives – not just on Christmas of course but every day.
The shepherds living in the fields, through their encounter with divine goodness, have started to become good themselves. And they have made known the message about the Christ Child by telling others, according to the evangelist’s description. (Lk 2:17) That is how our goodness grows and deepens – by taking up in a most serious way the demands of the new evangelization. We who are baptized and confirmed, we who share in the Holy Eucharist have a responsibility to imitate the heralding of the shepherds even if we do not live in the fields as they did. Whether we “live above the store” or not, there is an urgent summons to know the goodness of Christ and the incomparable gift of everlasting life He offers us now. The goodness of the Christ Child in Bethlehem was announced by a multitude of the heavenly host. (cf. Lk 2:13) May we sing out with them: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Lk 2:14)
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