sklbaThese are days when we find ourselves visiting the crib scenes which decorate our homes and parish churches everywhere. Apparently Francis of Assisi started the practice in the early 13th century in order to provide a visual catechesis for his contemporaries.

We always see the shepherds, roughly clad yet respectful, forgetting that they were once viewed with distaste, and even contempt, by their more religious contemporaries because shepherds couldn’t follow all the prescriptions of piety when out in the fields day and night.

We may even overlook the fact that one or other shepherd might be wearing Bavarian lederhosen as a result of some German influence over the centuries. Sometimes crib scenes of Italian origin playfully place a woman making pizza somewhere in the background. The mystery of the Incarnation includes cultures as well as centuries. Maybe real American versions should have a barbeque pit or a hot dog stand.

Eventually we will see the Magi exotically clothed in imaginary oriental robes, standing beside a camel or two, holding their three precious gifts. We may not know that legend once had them 12 in number, or that only in about the 14th century did one become black. Racism is a more modern phenomenon, completely absent as such from the biblical psyche.

Perhaps we never realized that Francis had added the ox and ass because of a prophecy of Isaiah who complained bitterly that even the “ox and ass know their Master’s crib” (1:3), though the leaders of ancient Israel seemingly didn’t have a clue about their God!

An angel is almost always hovering over the scene, scroll in hand, proclaiming (in Latin, of course, which shepherds would hardly ever have understood) the heavenly antiphon of “Gloria in excelsis Deo!”nativityA nativity scene is displayed in Aregua, Paraguay, Dec. 23, 2007, in this file photo (CNS photo/Jorge Adorno, Reuters)

No one, except perhaps the little children, seems to pay much attention to the sheep. They appear to be nothing more than an extra touch of realism.

As a matter of fact, however, they are very important for the message of Christmas. Jesus came “for the lost sheep of Israel” (Mt 15:24). Some sheep had to be present to make the point. Christians believe with profound certitude that Jesus himself was the full and final Paschal lamb who would die to free the world from the slavery of sin (Ex 12:1-17; 1 Cor 5:7). The sheep had to be present to remind us of this child’s destiny.

Jesus did not enter the world simply to magically take away all human pain, sorrow, disappointment or heartache. His divine heart was larger than that. He was sent to become one like us in all things but sin. Jesus was sent to walk with us through sickness, sin and death into the fullness of life. The sheep had to be there to signal the Paschal Mystery.

Unfortunately, post Enlightenment moderns tend to dismiss allusions to sheep as too docile, overly mindless, blindly obedient and patently stupid. No one wants to return to an age of uneducated Christian laity or clergy. We are called to be informed and intelligent partners in the work of the Gospel and in the transformation of the larger world. Nevertheless, the sheep remind us of the fact that the Incarnation cannot be separated from the Paschal mystery. The mission of Jesus and the call of his disciples always have a price. No one enters the Kingdom except through hardship (Acts 14:22).

So we shouldn’t ever overlook the sheep. They stand at the very heart of the mystery of God’s love!

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Allow me to add the titles of two books which caught my fancy in recent months.

First, there was the book selected for discussion at the annual ecumenical retreat of the Wisconsin Religious Leaders in Green Lake last month: Bill Bishop’s “The Big Sort: How Like-minded Communities are Tearing America Apart.” The book’s thesis is that contemporary Americans settle in neighborhoods of people who share the same perspectives.

They therefore choose political leaders who embody those values, only more so, and as elected representatives, feel themselves constrained to fight for the values without compromise in order to be re-elected. If one can get past the charts and graphs at the beginning of the book, the ideas are insightful and provocative.

Secondly, Madeleine Levine wrote an unsettling book titled “The Price of Privilege.” After 25 years of work with adolescents and young adults of affluent families in Marin County, Calif., she saw how often our young are driven to achieve by hovering and hard working, but all too absent, parents. Surprisingly, like central city teenagers, they also become empty and hurting at profound levels. She underscores something of great important for our nation and its future. Youth ministers could profit from this work.

P.S. Thanks for all the lovely cards and kind greetings at Christmas. To have so many friends and partners in the work of the Gospel is a great blessing to be cherished and never taken for granted.