As the countdown to Christmas is now well under way I find myself asking, what are the things that for the Ridley household are considered essential to this festive season? For example, I cannot imagine the Yuletide festivities without carol singing, or going to church on Christmas morning. Nor can I imagine Christmas dinner without a succulent turkey with the usual trimmings, or tuning into the Queen’s speech at 3.00pm. When we lived in Arnside in Cumbria there was a longstanding local tradition for people on Christmas Day, when there was no train service, to walk along the train viaduct that spanned the Kent Estuary. Hundreds of people made the walk, and it was lovely to see families and friends out together, even with their pets. I guess for many of us this time of year is wrapped up in all kinds of family customs and traditions that are repeated in many households across the land.
Similarly, I cannot picture the scene surrounding that first Christmas morn without the presence of the shepherds. I see them perhaps rushing into the stable all breathless and excited saying that they had a vision on the hillside that this helpless child in a manger was really the Son of God. I believe the reference to the shepherds is not some insignificant inclusion, one that is there to simply add a particular charm to that humble and hasty birth. Somehow their presence seems essential to the story of Christ’s birth, for they remind us that from the beginnings the glad tidings, which were for all the people, were first proclaimed to those little people who were at the bottom of the social ladder. They were ordinary people, going about their ordinary business of tending sheep on the surrounding hills. Yet they were the first to gaze upon the Christ child. They were the first witnesses, and in a sense they represent the countless multitude of ordinary people who have been drawn to Jesus across the centuries.
Let us not forget that Jesus came from shepherd stock. He was born in the line of David, Israel’s shepherd king. It is perhaps not surprising that Jesus would later describe himself as the “Good Shepherd.” It is a role that speaks of love, care, guidance, protection and sacrifice. These expressions of our common humanity at its best are also essential for the world we live in today. I cannot imagine a world without them. Christmas is a time of heightened joy and expectation for many people, but it is also a time of increased sadness and loneliness for others. As we go about our normal day to day living, preparing and embracing our usual festivities, may we be mindful of those for whom this season offers little cheer or congenial familiarity. Christ’s charge to Peter was “feed my sheep, care for my sheep.” It is a call that is as relevant as ever, and so may we be ready to reach out to others with a spirit of generosity, care and goodwill and do what we can to make sure that this spirit is not left behind like Christmas past.
Peace and Joy