Where Are the Shepherds? A guest post from Shannon O’Donnell

Where Are the Shepherds? A guest post from Shannon O’Donnell

On Advent Sundays this year, I pondered the shepherds. At a funeral we sang, “Shepherd Me, O God. A homilist repeated the pope’s admonition that pastors should be shepherds who smell like their sheep. Our inner city parish is far from any sheep’s pasture, but I sit in the pew and I ponder shepherds.

donation-box-foodAs the gifts are prepared, young children converge on the basket before the altar. In their hands are peanut butter, soup, mac and cheese, packages of rice and noodles,. All of it goes into the basket, headed for the food bank.

Todd, a tall lanky dad, carries his not-yet-walking son on his shoulders. Connor tosses in a juice box with glee.

Food Collection basket_2Four-year-old Sean pulls his younger sister along. Together they stand before the basket. He’s holding a multipack of ramen noodles. Lily doesn’t want to let go of the box of crackers. He places the noodles in the basket, then steps back and points. She frowns. Sean pokes her shoulder. Lily leans over and at the very last moment, she lets go of the box. She raises her hands. Victory! They skip back to their parents on the sidelines.

Some approach like old-timers, well-practiced in the art of giving. Others need a guiding hand or verbal urging (“Come ON!”)

Later, lines for Commuion form and move.

sign-of-peace-600-400-300x200Brian shakes hands with every person he sees until his wife runs gentle interference. His Alzheimer’s is more pronounced these days. Jeanne and her mother gather up the grandchildren. Susan gets her mother’s walker in place. Michael’s mom wheels her laughing son forward. One of the L’Arche assistants leads Sherry from a pew, a familiar dance between them.

Where are the shepherds? They are all among us, watching their flocks, smelling like their sheep.

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1474562_10202284427985779_1840724417_nShannon O’Donnell is an author from Tacoma, WA. Her book, Save The Bones, is a deeply moving account about memory, Alzheimer’s disease, and her (now recently deceased) mother Marie Cain. Shannon also blogs about life as a Catholic jail chaplain at Finding Grace Within. It is an honor to welcome Shannon’s work to the blog today.

This post may have you scratching your head and wondering what it has to do with the Christmas season, and even more specifically, with the Holy Family. Shannon is looking back at Advent and wondering where the shepherds are now. When I read it, I thought about the less-than-perfect holy family that we all are when we are church together. And what better reminder is needed today and always?

This unimaginable being “with-us-ness”

o-come-o-come-emmanuel-snippitWe sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” with an almost mindless grace, an unconscious awareness, but not always true comprehension. We may not be purposefully arrogant about it, but may be too distracted to  be fully in the mystery.

baby-jesus-bluebirdEmmanuel. God with us. We like to gaze down at the infant, “so tender and mild” in the Creche; we smile, our heart warms. And then, how we love to leave God in that Creche, in the Church, and in our Bibles, as we carry on. God in those places appears to be very manageable, fitting in with our plans and priorities.

fontanini_masterpiece_colle_lgGod was not aiming at sweetness during the Incarnation. This is not meant to be a moment of pious nicety. Jesus was sent to transform us through an unimaginable being “with-us-ness” that transcends our antiseptic images of nativity sets, singing angels, and a well-coiffed Mary, reliable Joseph, and the cute Baby Jesus. These images are not bad images, but if we stop there, what do we miss?

This “with-us-ness” reminds me of Duns Scotus’ concept of haecceity, or “this-ness,” rather than “what-ness.” And it is in that vein that the highly unimaginable being “with-us-ness” of the Incarnation comes to light.

imagesBeautiful and perfect Nativity scenes, may imply a sense of “what-ness.” The Christ child born in the world is different, He is the “this-ness,” the “with-us-ness,” that is barely imaginable, yet real. This is something beyond beautiful, pious, or sweet in any way. The birth of the Christ child transforms our relationship with God! God did not come to be something to be admired, or even feared; God came to be one-with-us in an unimaginable way, never before known.

baby-jesusTonight when you see the Baby Jesus placed in the manager at mass, or if he is already there when you arrive later, or tomorrow, please don’t just smile. Forget the beautiful images that the Creche offers, although those images are important. This is not just a pretty moment to gaze upon, but an invitation from God. God did not just happen to stop by, to be a beautiful baby. God was born, to be with you – yes, you – in a deeply intimate and complete way. God was born for all of us in this way, not some holy few, but for all who will welcome him as such. Can we do that?

This year, if you can, try to shift into that more challenging “with-us-ness” of Christ, not simply the “what-ness” of the Creche. Trust me, I have no clue how to do this, I’m just trying this myself. And with all things that are of Christ, they are never meant to be done alone. Let’s do this and be this “with-us-ness” together, one in the heart of Christ this christmas_painting_holy_family_nativity_scene_original_oil_and_winner__ed44aa76aeba1f73ddb22a1c29a3ea7eChristmas.