Luke 2:1-14 (NRSV)
Grounded and Surrounded by Love
Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus is a very simple account of this awesome event and concentrates more on the shepherds’ hillside visit by celestial angels who encourage them to visit and see for themselves. Why shepherds, I wonder? Is it because they understood the connection with the universe and were well grounded to the earthly elements all around them? I imagine, that sitting on a hillside after a day’s work looking at strange lights and unusual activity far up in the night sky would have captured their attention and definitely inspired a further investigation and much discussion.
These ‘lowly’ shepherds give me hope. They must be the least likely people we would expect to be first to receive the announcement of the birth of Jesus. Yet, I suppose they were the most appropriate ones to receive the news of Christ’s birth, for Jesus was to be the Good Shepherd who would lay down His life for His sheep. The word of today’s gospel is clearly being brought directly to us, the ‘people’, through a group of unassuming and hard-working shepherds resting on a hillside.
I have just recently returned from our mission in Bolivia where I worked in a medical clinic in the mountains with a young Bolivian doctor. Meeting early each morning at the clinic in the countryside we would head out on our motorbikes to various locations up the mountains to visit patients and find new ones.
As we got higher up the mountains the phrase that always went through my mind was: ‘This is so biblical’, as we passed farmers hand-ploughing their fields with oxen, and encountered Pastores (shepherds), many of them children. It is common in Bolivia for rural children (7-14years old) to pasture flocks of sheep, cattle, pigs, goats and llamas and to herd them to wherever they need to go.
On one of these visits we chanced on a young family whose mother had given birth three weeks earlier to her seventh baby, a boy whom she called Jonathan. The conditions they lived in were basic – one room with a barely thatched roof; no running water or electricity; and they all slept on a dirt floor on thin woven mats. The room had no windows and was so dark we had to wear head torches to see what was going on. The baby was wrapped in swaddling clothes and perched on top of a pile of clothes on one of the floor mats.
The swaddling he was wrapped in kept him warm and steady, preventing him from rolling over on to the floor. Our job was to record and register the baby’s birth for the Ministry of Health. One of the ways they do this is to take an ink impression of the baby’s feet and the parents’ thumb prints (very few can read and write). Afterwards his mother handed Jonathan to me for a blessing and then promptly put him into the top of a cloth bundle on her back, known as an aguayo or awayo with all her vegetables at the bottom for market. She would probably carry Jonathan like this for the next 2 years while she worked at home or in the fields, and walked back and forth to local markets.
I had never actually seen a baby wrapped in traditional swaddling clothes before. One of the many words for swaddle in Spanish is envolver which literally means ‘to surround’. They use a square yard of cloth and a mother wraps her child in this ‘swaddle’ with its arms close to its body and its legs stretched out. She would then wind a narrow band in a crisscross shape across its chest ending around the feet. Women in Bolivia have been carrying their babies like this for centuries – an image of security evoking God’s faithful love that enwraps and surrounds us.
At the time of Jesus, before wrapping in cloths, parents would rub the baby’s skin with a very small amount of finely grounded salt mixed with oil. For them, this was a promise that they would raise their child to be truthful and faithful. I am sure Mary and Joseph, as faithful, loving parents, would have offered this ritual to their new born Son.
God registered his love for humanity by allowing his Son to come among us, very much on the bottom rung of life’s pain, rejection and suffering. This gospel of Jesus’s birth tells me that God has marked out for us a path that involves suffering and rejection at times, but also, much joy through our life’s journey that requires truth and faith. Truth is a bedrock of Dominican life, underpinning everything we do. It is through the contemplation of truth that we find the words to preach with faith. St Dominic prayed contemplatively in that way. Jordan of Saxony writes: “He shared the daytime with his neighbour, but the night he dedicated to God.”
Pope Francis in Lumen Fidei sees faith as “God’s free gift, which calls for humility and the courage to trust and to entrust; it enables us to see the luminous path leading to the encounter of God and humanity: the history of salvation” (para.14).
This Christmas let us allow ourselves to have faith and find truth in ourselves, in others, and the world around us. We can only be changed for the better when we are true to ourselves and continually reorder our lives. In all of this we will find we are truly wrapped in the swaddling love of God.
Many blessings to one and all this Christmas Day, and throughout the year ahead, may we open our hearts in peace and love to all around us. Amen.
Sr. Susie O’Rawe OP