In the countryside close by there were shepherds… (Luke 2:8 New Jerusalem Translation)
Whether as small figurines in a home nativity scene or as a bathrobe-clad participants in a church Christmas pageant, the shepherds are brought out each year for their moment in the sun. Surrounded by cute, fluffy sheep, the shepherds gaze in wonder and serenity at the newborn squirming in the manger. But who were these people?
Shepherds were not considered “nice” people. They were outcasts, losers, sinners. They worked on the Sabbath, their manners, like their language, were course, their hygiene was poor, they were outsiders with numerous strikes against them. In other words, they were the very people Jesus Christ chose to be with.
From the very beginning of Luke’s gospel, the Son of God beckons to the outsider and outcast because he himself is an outsider in the very world he created. Jesus comes to us, a fragile newborn, bathed in the muck of birth and clothed in vulnerability of his own choosing. As his life unfolded, Jesus would be vulnerable to the cold and heat, vulnerable to hunger and thirst. He would be vulnerable to hatred and misunderstanding, vulnerable to the erroneous judgments of others, vulnerable to the lies and plots of the sanctimonious and self-righteous. In these bedraggled souls, relegated to the outskirts of society, deemed sinners by all others, with them and their kind, Jesus will consistently find welcoming hearts who will receive him with joy and humility while the fine, upstanding ones will eventually kill him.
Jesus will later call himself the “Good Shepherd,” taking the title of the despised upon himself, pointing out to all with eyes to see and hearts able to change and grow in mercy and compassion, that labels can be harmful, hurtful and hateful. The Good Shepherd will show, through the tapestry of his life, that goodness and the possibility of holiness can be found among all groups.
Just as the rough shepherds millennia ago were called to the rough, crude manger of a baby boy, so GLBT people are beckoned to by the plaintive cry of the Incarnate Word, Jesus, our welcoming, all-embracing Brother. The world can bombard us with negativity and hate, all the while wrapping it in pious drivel and fractured, stunted interpretations of scripture. But we do not have to listen to them! We do not have to buy into what others think we are or what we should be, or what others are more than willing to tell us is God’s understanding of us.
Instead let us gather around the manger, regardless of the time of year. Let us sit down beside our Brother’s cradle, and there, in the enfolding silence and calming seclusion, let us listen to his gentle breaths, the breaths that can blow away the dust and dross of negativity and self-hatred. Let us reach in and tenderly caress the flesh of him who offered both flesh and blood for you and me, he who was willing to be vulnerable so that we might be made strong. And whenever the day lies heavily across our shoulders, let us learn to return to the manger so as to reclaim the peace he desires to bestow.
Tom Yeshua is the pen name of Thomas E.L. Cloutier OFS, a transitional deacon who taught theology for 30 years at Nashua (N.H.) Catholic Regional Junior High School. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Don Bosco College in Newton, N.J., and a master’s in divinity and theology from St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Mass.