by Jim Dinn
At first glance the shepherds seem to be intruders who fill the frame of the gospel proclaimed on this feast of Mary, Mother of God. We encounter them in full stride, breathless, rushing through the dark countryside at the angel’s bidding to see the newborn infant. They have listened and believed. They have accepted the angel’s invitation and are hurrying to see what was promised. There they testify to all they have seen and heard so that others are enriched by their faith-sharing. Finally, they return to their work drastically changed, praising and glorifying God.
Mary, on the other hand, is the still point at the center of this reading. Her silent response is summarized with a single admiring sentence: “Mary treasured all these things and reflected on them in her heart.” She may seem to be a very different faith model than the shepherds.
But Mary and the shepherds complement each other. Clearly the shepherds are a faith model not because of the breadth and subtlety of their understanding, but because of their acceptance of what is revealed to them and their willingness to act and pray on the basis of that incomplete knowledge.
Mary is the same kind of faith model. At the heart of all that is unique about Mary is the reality she shares in common with all of us: hearing God’s message, believing, acting. And, even for her, the message comes more often from reflection than from angels. She and the shepherds have the same struggle we do–to live out as faithfully and generously as we can the partial understanding we are given of God’s word.
Luke draws us to contemplate along with Mary and the shepherds the same startling scene: a God-infant housed in a shelter for animals. It dramatizes Luke’s recurrent theme that the old, violent, exploitative order is being overturned. God is unequivocally standing with the outcasts and the disadvantaged. Mary’s poetic prayer declares it; the selection of the un-credentialed John the Baptist implies it; the beatitudes proclaim it; crucifixion between two criminals starkly demonstrates it.
It is truly a new world order that Jesus and all his followers are committed to. The poor, the suffering, the hungry, the deprived, the ostracized, the unrighteous, the Samaritans and the gentiles–these are to be the godly in the unfolding reign of God. It is a profoundly counter-cultural inversion of the status quo.
But it is an inversion that some of us don’t like–those of us who are conditioned as insiders in a comfortable society, those of us who have an economic or emotional or moral stake in the status quo. If we are unintentional beneficiaries of it, we can easily be blinded to its injustice and violence. Or we can simply grow weary of struggling.
Besides, as a people we tend to be embarrassed by nonconformity. We prefer a mainstream gospel. At some level we want to be inconspicuous–even in our gun-obsessed, consumer-driven society. We want to be comfortable with ROTC in our Catholic schools; it can help pay our bills. We think it might be more efficient to prevail by power rather than service. Like Peter, we’d like to explain to Jesus just how unreasonable his approach is. What he needs, we sometimes think, is a godo manager, a more popular strategy, some good PR.
But there is the disturbing image that Luke puts in front of us of Jesus on straw. It bothers us almost as much as the picture of Jesus on a cross. It is an image that we, like Mary, treasure and reflect on.
Does the passing of time (historical time and our personal life) make it harder to sustain our struggle in favor of the poor?
How comfortable are we about being counter-cultural?
* This reflection is from Familiar Voices: Advent Themes of Nonviolence – Advent and Christmas Season 1994.