And there were in the same country shepherds watching, and keeping the night watches over their flock. And behold an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the brightness of God shone round about them; and they feared with a great fear. And the angel said to them: Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, that shall be to all the people: For, this day, is born to you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David. (Luke 2:8–11)
The night was well advanced. The darkness had reached its maximum density. The flocks of sheep were surrounded by the unknown and danger. Possibly some shepherds, too easygoing or overcome by fatigue, were sleeping. There were, however, some who retained their sense of zeal and duty, and so did not succumb to slumber. They watched, and presumably they also prayed so that God would protect them from the surrounding dangers.
Suddenly a light appeared and enveloped them: “the brightness of God shone round about them.” All sensation of risk melted away. Much more than the problems and risks of a few poor flocks or a handful of shepherds melted away. Much more than all the constant dangers to earthly interests melted away. What was announced to them was the solution to the problems and risks that affected mankind in that which is most noble and precious: the soul. The goods of this earth sooner or later perish, but eternal life is forever, whether for happiness or desolation.
Without being as pretentious as to attempt to interpret the Sacred Text, I cannot but help being struck by how similar our world is today to that of the shepherds and flocks of sheep on that first Christmas night.
Many historical sources from those faraway days tell us that many people then felt that the world had irremediably failed. The complexity of the problems had made any solution impossible, and that chaos and destruction were on the horizon.
The people of those days could look back on the years gone by and be understandably proud. They had reached an apex of culture, wealth, and power as could be seen in the Roman superstate in particular. Long gone were the days of Year 1 when barbarian tribes roamed vast stretches of the Earth fighting against all sorts of adversity. Gradually, nations arose; each with their own characteristics, culture, intelligence, and practical institutions. They made roads, began navigation, and spread far and wide both the fruit of the earth as well as industry. Of course, there were abuses and disorders, but mankind did not so clearly view them as such, because every generation suffers from a surprising insensitivity towards the evils of its own day.
The crux of the situation of the Old World was not in that they did not have what they wanted. It was that generally speaking, after having painstakingly acquired the means to be happy, they did not know how to make use of them. For years, they had labored to acquire these things, but they felt a terrible emptiness in their souls. Sometimes it even tormented them, because when power and wealth are not properly used, they become cumbersome and bring affliction.
Consequently, darkness enveloped mankind. What did men do? They did what everyone does when night comes. Some flung themselves into orgies, others slept deeply, while yet others—and how few they were—did as the shepherds did. They kept vigil. They watched out for the enemy jumping out of the darkness to assault, ready to give them immediate combat. Or they gazed up at the dark heavens with the certainty that the sun would eventually dawn to beat back the darkness, eliminating or forcing back to their dens the enemies who, emboldened by the cover of darkness, had ventured out to commit crimes.
In the Ancient World, amongst the millions of people crushed by useless culture and opulence, there were those special people who perceived how dense was the darkness, how corrupt were the customs, how the apparent order lacked authenticity, how much risk mankind was running, and moreover, how a civilization based on idolatry had led to a state of nonsense.
These special souls were not necessarily well-educated or highly intelligent, for the lucidity to see the great horizons, the great crises, and the great solutions comes, not so much from intelligent insight, but rather from uprightness. These upright souls understood the situation because for them truth is truth, and error is error. Good is good and evil is evil. These souls are not complicit with the excesses of the day, are not cowed by scorn or by the isolation the world imposes on those who do not conform. Such high quality souls are rare and spread thinly all over, amongst masters and servants, seniors and children, wise and the unlettered. These kept watch during the night, prayed, fought, and awaited Salvation.
This Salvation began by first coming to the faithful shepherds, but, as the Gospel relates, it then went beyond the farthest reaches of Israel and shone a great light to all those around the world who refused the option to sink into orgies or into a stupid and lazy slumber. When virgins, children and seniors, centurions, senators and philosophers, slaves, widows and potentates began to convert, waves of persecutions were unleashed upon them. But no violence could break them. And when, in the arena, they gazed proudly and serenely at the Caesars, the howling onlookers, and the beasts, the Angels of Heaven sang: Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to men of goodwill.
This canticle of the Gospel was not heard by any human ear; but rather it moved the souls. The blood of these serene and unbreakable heroes was thus transformed into the seed of new Christians.
The old world that adored the flesh, gold, and the idols died, and a new world was born based on the Faith, purity, self-denial and the hope of Heaven.
Our Lord Jesus Christ had solved it all.
* * *
Are there today still authentic men of goodwill who keep watch during the darkness, who fight in anonymity, who gaze to Heaven hoping with unbreakable certainty that the light will return?
Yes there are, just like at the time of the shepherds. TFP members meet them everywhere: in the streets, squares, planes, skyscrapers, basements, and even in places of luxury where—apart from a few faint glimmers of tradition—the false elites largely dominate. We see them welcoming with an open smile those who proclaim an ideal that never dies because it is based on Our Lord Jesus Christ. We see them waiting for God’s intervention in History. It is a wait which puts to the test, but eventually purifies mankind, but which will end one cycle of darkness to open a new era of light.
To these authentic men of goodwill, to these authentic descendants of the shepherds of Bethlehem, I suggest they understand the words of the Angel as if directed to them: “Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy that shall be to all the people.”
These are prophetic words, echoed in Our Lady’s promise at Fatima. Communism can spread its errors throughout the world. It can make the just suffer. But, finally—Our Lady foretold at Fatima—her “Immaculate Heart will triumph.”
This is the great light, which as a precious Christmas gift, I wish for all readers and, most especially, for genuine men of goodwill.
The preceding article was originally published in the Folha de S.Paulo, on December 26, 1971. It has been translated and adapted for publication without the author’s revision. –Ed.