The Shepherds Have Names!

By January 8, 2016 No Comments
Christmas Eve, Year C, 2015 – Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20

This is Ajit, Margaret, and Gabby’s last service with us. Off they go to France in a couple of days. So here is a carol for them!

J’entends un grand bruit dans les airs (x2)
Colin écoute ces concerts,
Tout retentit dans nos deserts,
Voyons quelle est cette merveille,
En fut-il jamais de pareille?

In English, it’s something like this:

I hear an enormous sound within the skies
Colin, listen to this symphony!
Everything is resounding in our empty landscape.
Let us go see this marvellous thing.
Has there ever been anything like it?

It’s a great, but also very typical, first verse of a medieval carol. We hear about the amazing sounds of angels, astonishment, senses on edge and eager wonder. In it, two notes, common to all these carols, French, English, and the rest: first, the shepherd has a name, in this case “Colin”; second, the very heavens are trembling. That is what tonight is, and I want to reflect on each of these elements.

First, the shepherds have names; tonight they have names. Of course, the names are not written in the Bible. But early on, stories abounded. An early Syrian Christian text tells us the names:
Asher, Zebulon, Justus, Nicodemus, Joseph, Barshabba, and Jose (Book of the Bee, 13th. c. Syriac). The names, not surprisingly, differ from region to region. In the Basque area of the Pyrenee mountains, the shepherds are named Blas, Nicolas, Tomas; and even their dogs are known: Melampo, Cubilon, Lobina – if you name your dog one off these, they will never go mad. In 15th century France, there are two women shepherdesses in the mix, Alison and Mahault, as well as Colin, whom I sung about, and Aloris, Ysanber, Gobin le Gay, and “le beau Roger”. The shepherds had names in England too. In one famous medieval mystery play from Chester, they are called Harvey, Tudd, Hankin, and Trowle.

By the 18th and 19th centuries in France, the shepherds in the carols are now all children – with names like Pierrot and Jannette. Along with them, rushing to the manger after the angels call, come the local wine-maker, the butcher and the laundry woman. It gets more and more particular, individual, small. The shepherds have names, that is, right here.

In one English popular telling of the story, the three shepherds are named Col, Gil and Dave. They sit around in the night time, all alone on the empty hills, and complain amongst themselves about their lives – typical maybe, but lives whose pititful and hard edges are just what makes a human person both a person and a question. Some of it is perennial but awfully real. One of them, the one named Col, in the field, laments:

“We are so lamed, overtaxed and rammed, And like a pet tamed by those [rich] gentlemen. Thus they rob us of our rest. They are our pest…Thus are countrymen oppressed, to the point of misery.”

Sometimes it’s the general grumbling of worn out impatience, as Gil mutters:

“Lord, this weather’s to spite us, the wind is so keen and frost so hideous, it makes my eyes stream, No lie.”
Maybe not this winter in Toronto; but many like them!

Gil is cold and tired. That’s the point: of course the shepherds had names, because tonight is about right here: Sam or Sarah; John or Jennifer. Your names. That is who this is all for – you and me. Here and now, tonight. And all the little things we live and thus bring with us tonight: the fussing around bedtime with children; the dishes; the work still left undone and waiting until Monday, not going anywhere; the argument with your mother; the nagging illness or gnawing pain; the broken sister or alcoholic cousin; the uncertainty of this or that; the happy hug or disappointed visit. “Quoi-donc, Colin, ne sais-tu pas, Qu’un Dieu vient de naitre ici-bas?” – what, Colin, don’t you realize that God is now born right down here?

Right here. So the Shepherds have names.

But if that’s all it were – that God loves each one of us, and Jesus is that gentle love – it’s nothing but a sentimental observation.

It only means something, something worth our coming out, worth our song, worth our hearts, worth everything, not just tonight but always – it only means something because, in addition to the shepherds having names, the heavens are trembling. “Tout rententit dans le desert”, “Everything is reverberating in our empty landscape”

Shhhh! Our lives are so small. Alone, they would crack apart and blow away. And many of us feel that way. For, lo, how the heavens do tremble! Through telescopes we see the throbbing of distant galaxies, stars swirling downwards into nothingness, and showering our own earth with the bits and pieces of their broken vibrations from trillions of miles away.
“And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind” (Rev. 6:13).
Even our own earth shudders in its orbit, before of its own uncertain future. Our lives are so small. In all the heavens, we know of nothing like this planet, and we stand here, wondering, yes, like common laborers in an empty desert, looking at the sky. This universe is a trembling universe, and our names are nothing but dust in the cosmic wind.

That is the amazing thing: not that “God”, in some benign embrace, knows our name, but that this God, Lord of something we barely understand and before whose trembling outlines we too tremble, this God knows our name, has given it, has in fact made us such.

And this God, in the desert of our smallness, in the midst of the infinite tremors of unstable things, has reached down into the wind and frost, the robber barons and misery, and called us: “fear not! I bring you good tidings!”. And thus led us to the place where heaven and earth, the great and the small, are met together, the place where God’s clutch cannot let go.

He knows your name. Colin, Jannette; Ajit and Margaret; David and Catherine, Jen, Peter, Ruth, Locksley… The King has come to each of us, without letting go of boundlessness.
St. Augustine writes (Sermon 187): “He sets the stars in motion, and yet sucks at His mother’s breasts; so great a God, yet so small a child; directing the universe, while holding the carpenter’s tools; guiding the galaxies while clothed in swaddling cloth”. Nothing like this has ever been seen or known. But tonight…! “I hear an enormous sound within the skies. Colin, listen to this symphony! Everything is resounding in our empty landscape. Let us go see this marvellous thing. Has there ever been anything like it?”

Sermon was preached by Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner at St. Matthew’s Riverdale on Christmas Eve, December 24th, 2015.
Ephraim Radner

Ephraim Radner

Ephraim Radner is Professor of Historical Theology at Wycliffe College, an evangelical seminary of the Anglican tradition at the University of Toronto. Before moving to Toronto in 2007, he served as an Anglican priest in Burundi (Africa), Brooklyn (NY), Cleveland, Connecticut, and Colorado, where he was engaged in a wide range of pastoral and teaching ministries. Ephraim and his wife Annette Brownlee (Wycliffe College’s Chaplain and an instructor in Pastoral Theology) live in St. Matthew’s neighborhood, and relish the excitement and diversity of Riverdale. He assists the parish in leading worship, preaching, and teaching, (and sometimes with some music) and has been blessed by the witness and friendship offered by St. Matthew’s members.