Shepherds Bedeviled but Never Overcome

El_Greco_Adoration of the Shepherds

“Adoration of the Shepherds” (1612-1614) by El Greco.

A sermon for Christmas Eve, Midnight Mass, December 24, 2019.  The scriptures are Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2:11-14, and Luke 2:1-20.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Two Sundays ago, I was treated to a special Children’s Christmas pageant.  Originating from Franciscan missionaries in Mexico in the 1500’s, these particular Christmas pageants are called Pastorelas, because the pastores, or shepherds figure prominently in the story.  Some of the Franciscan missionaries sought to work around the heavy-handedness of the conquistadors and to be more creative in “wooing” people to Christianity. But not only do the pastorelas give a major role to the shepherds, they also include a character not specifically showing up in any of the Biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus.   The pastorela also includes the devil!

You see, following in the tradition of St. Francis himself, who probably created the first creche or nativity scene, the Franciscan missionaries were careful to make the Bible story fun.  What happens in the pastorela is that the devil, or the devil and his partners, do everything they can to try to prevent the shepherds from making their way to Bethlehem.  They think that by keeping the shepherds away, and really, by keeping everyone away from Bethlehem, then this so-called “birth of a savior” (to the devils) will go unnoticed and just fizzle out.

The pastorela I saw was comprised of the children from the Centro Infantil San Pablo a ministry of St. Paul’s Church in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.  The Center provides free pre-school education for children from very poor backgrounds. The school director played the chief devil and, with her assistant devils, lit the Advent wreath in church, and then almost stole the show after worship as the Christmas pageant played out on the church lawn.   The children representing Mary and Joseph rode across the lawn on a read donkey, so the devils tried to pull the donkey’s tale and lead it astray.  But they failed, and Mary and Joseph made their way to shelter.  When the angels tried to make their way to Mary and Joseph, again, the devils did everything they could to ground the angels. The failed.  And then the shepherds—some of the smallest children—came along. Again, the devils did everything they could (and almost succeeded with a couple of the kid-shepherds), but failed.  By the time the three kings made their way (a little early), the devils could only sit on the sidelines and make faces, furious in their defeat.

I love the way the pastorela injects the real world into the beauty of the Christmas story.  Whether we imagine the devil as a silly little red person with a tail and a pitchfork, something frightening-beyond-belief from film or literature, or just that little voice inside ourselves that would lead us astray; too often, the devil is all too real.

Like the shepherds, we want to see God. We perceive a light in the distance, maybe as clear as a star, or maybe murkier, and even thought we don’t really know where we’re headed, we go.  We go by faith, or something like faith.  But then there are roadblocks, devils that try to change our focus, raise complications, and throw us off course.

But the good news of Christmas is that God has come into the world in the form of Jesus to be like us, to show us the way, to walk beside us, and never to leave us alone.  Through his death and resurrection, Jesus has already defeated the devil, and so even when it seems like we’re being tested and taunted, the best the devil can really ever do is to sit on the sidelines and make faces—because evil and death have been defeated; once and for all.

Tomorrow’s Gospel puts this poetically, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  The Word has become flesh and lives among us, full of grace and truth.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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