Imagine a Roman Catholic priest, a Benedictine monk in his early sixties with a sense that he is not long for this world. He has visited one of his former students, a diocesan priest, recently settled into his post as bishop of a major city some seventy miles south of the monastery. Back home, the old priest-professor writes a letter to the new bishop to offer some farewell thoughts on the current state of the Church in their region.
His concerns include the sorry facts that the lay faithful are not attending Mass regularly, monasteries have become lax, and priests are so poorly educated that they cannot say even the Lord’s Prayer in Latin. Moreover, there simply are not enough priests. The bishop really ought to do something about these problems.
The letter was written in late 734, and its author was an Anglo-Saxon man we know as Saint Bede the Venerable, or usually the Venerable Bede. He lived from around 673 to 735, and from age seven he was either a student at a monastic school in northeastern England or was a monk of that monastery and as such taught in his old school. Best known today for An Ecclesiastical History of the English People, he was in his own day renowned as a Scripture scholar. He wrote several biblical commentaries, and he compiled in two volumes fifty of his homilies on the Gospels.
Just as Bede’s letter to his new bishop has a familiar ring to it, his homilies have messages for Christians today. Bede’s fifty homilies are available in English translation, quoted below, two paperback volumes by Lawrence T. Martin and David Hurst. Four of those homilies are for Christmas, and another one is for the Octave Day of Christmas.
One of Bede’s Christmas homilies is for Christmas Eve, his text being Matthew 1:18-25. His other three Christmas homilies are on Luke 2:1-13, Luke 2:15-20, and John 1:1-14; for the Octave Day he preached on Luke 2:21. Here we will consider the second one for Christmas Day, on Saint Luke’s account of the shepherds visiting the Christ child. In these homilies Bede made similar points, so very likely they were not delivered to the same congregation all in the same year.
By the early 700s, when Bede was preaching, the Church had developed much of her teaching, and Bede inherited a long tradition of biblical scholarship. He learned that just as Christ has two natures, fully human and fully divine, so does Scripture have two senses, literal and spiritual. It is an insight the Church still believes and teaches, as one can find in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Number 115.
Accordingly, Bede began each homily by looking at the literal or historical sense of the Gospel text, and then he went deeper and expounded upon the spiritual sense. When preaching on the shepherds going to see the newborn son of Mary, Bede accepted as historical fact that one night outside Bethlehem angels appeared to shepherds.
However, on that aspect of the text he spent only a few lines. Rather than belabor a point, Bede guided his hearers beyond the dry outer layer, what he elsewhere compared to the crust of bread, into the richer core of the biblical narrative. From the basic history he entered another level of meaning, and that spiritual sense took him further into the sacred mysteries of his faith, making for Bede the spiritual sense also a mystical sense.
“Mystically,” he explained, “these shepherds represent teachers of flocks, and also directors of the souls of the faithful.” Bede noted that the angels appeared to the shepherds at night, and the darkness of night stands as a symbol for the “dangers and temptations” against which spiritual shepherds are always guarding themselves and their flocks. Bede also pointed out that shepherds are pastors and that the shepherds near Bethlehem went to see the Good Shepherd, who would after His resurrection command the man Bede called “the supreme shepherd,” Saint Peter, “If you love me, feed my lambs,” (Jn 21:16-17), meaning, “Strengthen your brothers” (Lk 22:32).
Lest his hearers think that by equating shepherds with pastors Bede was addressing only his fellow priests, he told them, “It is not only bishops, presbyters, deacons, and even those who govern monasteries, who are to be understood to be pastors, but also all the faithful, who keep watch over the little ones of their house, . . . insofar as they preside with solicitous watchfulness over their own house.”
Bede added that the lay faithful, whose pastoral role derives from their parental responsibilities, are joined also by the lay brothers of his monastery. “Every single one of you, brothers,” Bede told them, “who is believed to live as a private person holds the office of pastor, and feeds a spiritual flock, and keeps watch by night over it, if, gathering a multitude of good acts and pure thoughts to himself, he tries to govern them with just control, to nourish them with the heavenly pastures of the Scriptures, and by vigilant shrewdness to keep them safe against the snares of evil spirits.”
It was a point made also by one of the great saints of the twentieth century, Monsignor Josemaría Escrivá. In his spiritual classic, The Way (1939), he wrote, “You have the obligation to sanctify yourself. Yes, even you. Who thinks this is the exclusive concern of priests and religious? To everyone, without exception, our Lord said: ‘Be perfect, as my heavenly Father is perfect’ [Mt 5:48].” From his writings as a whole, it is clear that for Saint Josemaría, sanctifying oneself means being open to and working with God’s grace.
This understanding of sanctification and pastoral service being open to all Christians occurs in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Number 1546. There it is explained in the context of baptism giving a believer a share in Christ’s priestly ministry. All participate in Christ’s servant leadership to the extent that their calling enables them.
As he did in other homilies, Bede presented to his hearers a practical example in the Virgin Mary. The historical shepherds went away rejoicing after seeing the baby Jesus. Her joy and her sorrow came from seeing Him from crib to Cross. In the silence of her heart, she pondered the mysteries about her son, bringing them forth when it best served others.