We Shepherd Boys
Fr. Joseph K. Horn
Christmas Day, 1990
St. Norbert’s Parish
Let’s take a trip. Get on board the wings of imagination, and let’s pretend. Leave the present behind. Leave your troubles behind. Join me on a journey to a simpler life in a simpler time long ago, just you and me...
We are ten-year-old shepherd boys, you and I, not old enough to be called men yet, but old enough to be trusted with watching the flocks at night. We’re having fun tonight. We run around playing hide and seek in the moon shadows until we get tired, and then we tell ghost stories to each other until we get really tired, and now we’re lying flat on our backs on the side of a hill, shouting when we see a meteor, and quietly counting the stars. It’s a grand life we two shepherd boys lead, full of health and joy, surrounded by silently grazing sheep on green hills spreading away and away.
Suddenly KAWHOOM! the night sky is shattered by the sound of a thousand-voice choir complete with thundering pipe organ, trumpets, and timpani! It’s so loud that it feels like there’s an earthquake, and it’s so sudden that we both leap to our feet in a heartbeat.
Me, I’m scared to death! “WHAT IS IT?!?” I shout over the din.
“I don’t know!” you shout back, but I notice that you’re smiling. You always were more courageous than me! Suddenly, you take off running to the top of the hill, and when I catch up to you, you’re looking up and pointing. “Look!” you shout over the celestial music.
To my amazement, the stars seem to be dancing! Or are they just being shaken by the sheer volume of the music? Or could it be that the stars themselves are singing? And what are those words? It’s so loud that it’s hard to understand; something about a new king being born? Who? Where? I look a question at you, but you just excitedly point and shout, “Look at that!”
As we watch with wide eyes, one star rapidly grows brighter and brighter, until it begins to light up the edge of town like the sun. “What is it?!?” I cry, terrified.
You just laugh and say, “Let’s go see!” and you run downhill towards the light. As I crazily run to follow you, the music begins to fade, but the star gets brighter and brighter.
As we run pell-mell, full of excitement and wonder as only ten-year-olds can be, I think about what a crazy friend you are. You are always daring me to do wild, silly things, and somehow they don’t seem difficult when I’m with you. It’s as if there’s a magic circle around you, and whenever I’m inside it, nothing is impossible. My life wouldn’t be half as dangerous without you, nor half as fun. I love having you as my friend, even if you do make me run a lot.
Breathlessly, I catch up to you again, just as you arrive at an old stable. The mysterious light is brightest here, and I’m afraid to go in, but I’m in your magic circle, so I follow you inside. There we see a young man and woman, gazing lovingly at a newborn infant lying in the manger.
Could it be? Could this be the newborn king? I try to hide in the shadows. You boldly step closer, and ask what the child’s name is. The young woman smiles and says, “Jesus.” It is! It’s him! Oh, how I’d like to... to... but no. I couldn’t do that. Not me. I’m only a shepherd boy.
And then you ask what I wanted to ask but didn’t have the courage. “May I hold him?” you ask. She nods her head. You reach down to pick him up. I hold my breath, knowing that something miraculous is happening. You pick up the baby, and gently hold him. I feel a lump in my throat and my eyes go misty as you smile down at the baby so calmly sleeping, and you say to him, ever so softly, “Happy Birthday, Jesus!”
All right, all right! Snap out of it! Enough of this childish pretending! I’ve got bad news for you: we are not shepherd boys, we do not live in Bethlehem, and that first Christmas was 2000 years ago and 8000 miles away! Welcome back to the present, where we spend our lives concerned with fluctuating interest rates, corrupt political candidates, and mad Iraqi potentates. We don’t live on the rolling hills of green under skies of blue; we live on bulldozered acres of concrete under fluorescent lights. Our lives are patchworks of bill juggling, corporate power meetings, and Pepto Bismol.
Let’s be honest! Does the newborn Jesus fit into our modern world? He was born in the flesh so that we could see and touch him, but that was so long ago! Is there any way that we could see and touch him today, as did those shepherd boys that we were so many lifetimes ago?
YES! I’ve got good news for you! Jesus knew that he would not walk the earth forever. He knew that we would want to see him in the flesh, and to hold his dear infant body in our hands, and feel his warmth and love, not just in our minds, but really, in our hands. And so, on the night he was betrayed, he took bread, and handed it to his friends and said, “This is my body. Do this in memory of me.” He gave us the Eucharist so that we can hold him, not just in some sort of sweet symbolic way, but really, truly, in the flesh.
About ten minutes from now, right here, the bread and wine on this very altar will be miraculously changed into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus, in a miracle as great and as real and as tangible as the miracle of that first Christmas when he lay in the manger in Bethlehem.
Hey! You know what? You always were the bold one. Go for it! When you come up for Communion today, take the host, the body of Jesus, as gently and as lovingly and as reverently as you did 2000 years ago, and once again softly say to him, “Happy Birthday, Jesus!”