This Christmas Eve, I won’t be at Midnight Mass. Actually, my body will be, but my mind and heart will be in the Cave of the Shepherds in Bethlehem. We went there this past May while I was in the Holy Land with the Catholic Press Association, and I found it to be one of the most fascinated places of all the ones we visited.
Based on the gazillion Christmas cards I’ve seen, I’d pictured things quite differently. I imagined that the Angels came to announce the Good News to the shepherds out in the middle of rolling fields lush with shrubs and grass. But our guide had told us that tradition indicated that the angel appeared to the shepherds in a cave – the very cave in which we were standing.
I looked around me; there wasn’t much to this place, with shelves and storage spaces carved into the walls and some artifacts on display there. I’m sure that the seats long since installed for pilgrims made it seem smaller, but I was surprised that the cave wasn’t larger. The seats were all facing an altar (also built since the time of the shepherds) at which holy Mass is said from time to time.
It’s hard to explain, but while in the cave, I felt an unusual sense of comfort. Outside of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds were the very first to hear the Good News and to receive the invitation from the Angels to go and see the Newborn King. Of course, I knew and believed this before, but somehow, standing right there where the news was announced made me feel as though I was hearing it for the first time myself. I felt the same kind of on and joy that I had felt in the Church of the Nativity. This time, however, I wasn’t standing next to the place; I was standing in it!
I tried to imagine what it was like for the shepherds. Perhaps they were sitting around chatting and enjoying a simple meal after a long day of hard work when the angel suddenly was standing before them. Scripture says that the “glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear.” (Lk 2:9) at that moment, I could definitely imagine the glory of the Lord appearing in the cave, but it was hard to imagine their fear. I’m sure that’s because now, looking back, I know why the angel appeared – the shepherds didn’t. Perhaps they didn’t even know what an angel was!
So, I can imagine that it really knocked their socks off when the “being” spoke to them.
“The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:
‘Glory to God in the highest!
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.'” (Lk 2:10-14)
Those words came back to me as I stood there, and I suddenly felt a special connection to these simple men who, as Pope Francis has described, “smelled like their sheep,” and were the first outside of his holy parents to actually see the Infant, to feel his presence, and to experience his glory. In my heart I prayed, “Lord, let me be like the shepherds – unassuming, eager to accept the Good News, and anxious to feel your glory.”
I’m saying that same prayer now, as I ready myself for Christmas. In shepherd-style, I’m preparing myself to receive the Good News, and to appreciate the miracle that was revealed to the shepherds on that holy night. During Midnight Mass, I will be traveling back to Bethlehem, and taking my place on the seat in the cave of the shepherds.
As the angels again sing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests,” I’ll be praying, “Lord, let my heart be open for the Good News and let me truly feel your glory.”