Meeting The Shepherds

On Christmas Eve morning, bracing my self for what would be a busy day, I couldn’t get past the simple thought:

I hate Christmas.

Or rather, I hate the seemingly inescapable saccharine season that calls itself Christmas. It’s not just the malls and the music and the marketing. It is all of those things, but it doesn’t stop there.

It’s the sickness that has seemingly seeped into every corner of our Americanized celebrations at home, the office, and yes, even at church.

On the day before we celebrate Christ’s first screeching breaths, I had nearly given up on humanity.

On the day before we celebrate the miracle of new life, the new life that comes as we welcomed a life-changing presence into the world, I found myself carrying the anxiety brought on by a thousand and one seeker-friendly sanitized messages for the person who has everything.

And I wondered, on that morning, who amongst us wants to encounter a Christmas as messy as the world we live in? Who amongst us wants a Christmas as messy as the reality of life and death, of pain and joy, of blessing and curse, of brokenness and healing?

I still don’t know why it was amplified this year, but there has been something that has caused me to wonder where Jesus might be found, considering the tidy way we like to package and wrap the whole thing up. Delivery on Christmas, and send the boxes to the road the next day.

The reality is that I need a Christmas as messy and guttural and powerful and life-affirming as birth. What I need more than anything is the costly, messy, and liberating story of one born in a sea of blood and amniotic fluid in the makeshift shelter of those who were refugees in their own backyard.

What I need and what I get are different things. What I get as I walk around downtown is the shimmer and sheen of Tiffany’s, and Gucci and Prada. What I get is the sparkle and tinsel. Until I slow down just a little to talk with a friend who lives in one of the alleyways near the church I serve.

And in that moment, I’m not entirely sure I’m ready to embrace the full messiness of it all. I want a little grit. But not so much as to disrupt my middle-class comforts.

I don’t live on the streets like my friend. And I’m not a refugee like Jesus and his parents.

Even as we welcome 25,000 to Canada in the coming days, I do not, may not ever truly understand what that means.

I can’t understand the extent to which Jesus’ birth narrative is a costly, messy, liberating story. But there are plenty of others who have such an appreciation. In the Toronto Star this week, Adam Taylor writes that local authorities in Baghdad put their necks on the line to honour Christmas festivities in the midst of extreme danger:

in the past 18 months, many Iraqi Christians have found themselves risking death for their beliefs. In July 2014, the extremist group issued a decree warning Christians in the city of Mosul that they would be killed unless they renounced their faith or paid a tax. Christians had their homes marked with red paint and their property seized.

While this is their reality, the worst I faced this year was a sense of gift-giving guilt brought on by feelings of the inadequacy of my gift to communicate the love and appreciation I wish to demonstrate.

And so I fixate on the item, and not the person.

And so I fixate on the item, and not the relationship.

And so I fixate on the item, and not the gift that they are to me.

And so I fixate on the item. I fixate on the item. I fixate on the item.

This consuming sickness runs deep.

What I need this Christmas season is to enter into the muck and filth of a story that has the power to liberate me from a sickness that runs deep. A sickness deep in my bones, and deep in the bones of our society. What I need this Christmas season is to be drawn out of my self-centered and self-indulgent bubble into the true gift of God With Us.

Not simply God with me.

But God with us.

I think I’d settle for mucking out the barn. But so often I feel far removed from that possibility.

Church doesn’t do us any favours at Christmas when music, prayer, and sermons lull us into silent nights of pastoral scenes and crisp cool nights without so much as a baby’s cry.

Church doesn’t do us any favours when the shepherds take it in stride when the angel hordes descend. As if they didn’t shit their pants. As if that wasn’t the craziest thing they’d ever seen.

Church doesn’t do us any favours when it edits out one of the Gospel’s best illusion-shattering one-liners:

He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph (Luke 3:23)

Truth is, I need Christmas. But more than that, I need the Christ of Christmas. The one who was born into a world on fire. The one who was born into a time of deep uncertainty and conflict. The one who was born into a world like ours.

Where everything’s messed up, no matter what the past several months of marketing have sold us.

The truth is, it wasn’t until 4.30 or 5.00 on Christmas Eve that I felt like Christmas might be upon us. And a huge part of that feeling came from encountering people on the city’s streets, simple as it was, handing out hot chocolate with folks from my church.

Weary shoppers. Lost tourists. Street-involved folks. Christmas revellers. People in smiles. People in tears. Everyone. Santa stopped by, and it wasn’t the worst thing in the world.

It was the contact and connection. It was the even playing field. It was the brief intersection of our stories. A small glimpse of a gift for one and all. It was receiving so much back in terms of smiles, and joy, and confused looks. It’s one day a year, people, and yes, we will be back on December 24th 2016 to hand it out again.

I walked home on that night knowing it wouldn’t be a peaceful night. Not for everyone. Not for my friend with a spot to sleep in the alley around the corner.

I imagine him as one of the shepherds. Street smart and world weary, but ready for a fight if need be. I imagine the angels showing themselves to the shepherds of the city’s alleys and their pals with good news of great joy. I imagine them as the first hearers of this news. Out back in the alley. And the story starts to make sense again.

It helped me to feel again. To imagine again. To start to encounter the gravity of a story against which I have been anaesthetized.

How, from the comfort of my apartment, with millions of people displaced and grieving and hurting, and ostracized, and seeking rest and shelter and peace. How, from the comfort of my apartment, around the Christmas tree with its glittering lights and made-in-China ornaments can I enter into the depths of a story of hope, and freedom, and liberation, that I cannot even imagine.

How can I even begin to understand if I don’t first seek out the shepherds?

Andrew Stephens-Rennie on FacebookAndrew Stephens-Rennie on Twitter
Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Andrew is a writer, dreamer and organizer with a keen interest in developing leaders in faith, compassion and justice.

He currently serves as the Director of Missional Renewal for the Anglican Diocese of Kootenay on the unceded territories of the Sinixt, Syilx, and Ktunaxa nations. He previously served as the Director of Ministry Innovation at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, BC.

Andrew is cofounder and contributing editor at, and co-editor of "A Sort of Homecoming: Essays Honoring the Academic and Community Work of Brian Walsh" with Marcia Boniferro and Amanda Jagt.

3 Responses to “Meeting The Shepherds”

  1. Brian Walsh

    You can always come and muck out my barn.

  2. Lydia Keesmaat-Walsh

    I’m with my dad on this one.


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