Over Christmas this year, I was in the village Chontal. The priest had asked that I lead the Christmas celebrations this time. They usually send a nun or two for the 9 day Christmas novena, culminating in the Christmas Eve celebrations.
What typically happens is that the nuns come and join up with the usual local leaders, and then go around recruiting people to participate in the activities. It’s a bit like pulling teeth, but by the all-out activity of the nuns, there is a good crowd of people on the first day of the novena. But, slowly but surely, that hyper activity backfires, as the novena drags on with long talks to a tired people. The attendance dwindles. There is a final push for the Christmas Eve celebrations, with a few people carrying the load, taking control and getting people where they need to be. Competitions and prizes are planned to boost attendance. By Christmas morning, people are generally relieved that it is all over.
This time, though, was different.
Things got spread out among more people. People who wanted to participate showed up and volunteered instead of being hunted down. All competitions were eliminated. Each night the novena grew. Musical instruments came out of hiding, and people too. Children would come on their own – and convince their parents to come. By the Christmas Eve celebrations, there was the largest crowd ever, so they say. People were even coming from neighboring villages. Afterwards, I was told it was the best Christmas they had ever had there in the church. Even the usual leaders were happy: they made more money than ever before.
Why was it so different? I will tell you why.
It is because 8 years earlier, I had assisted the village in building a church. I felt I had a love in my heart for the people, and decided to come and get to know them. Seven years earlier I arrived for the first time to visit. Later that year I returned for a few weeks. I visited briefly the next two years, seeing the beauty in the people, always visiting people and families and playing with the kids. In 2014, I visited and was present when a natural disaster almost destroyed the whole community. I helped to raise funds to help rebuild the homes of the most affected. I returned the same year to stay six months, bringing surprises for the kids in school, accompanying and visiting everyone, teaching English and computers, playing with kids, celebrating fiestas and the passing of family members. I returned another 6 months and assisted the school in a bout of suicides, started a youth group, led movie nights, accompanied and assisted the poorest and sickest, even to death. Returned again to continue living the life. All by choice. No one told me I had to go. No one paid me for it.
The Christmas novena this year was so different for one reason.
I had come to be inside of the community.
And God speaks to us from the inside.
Jesus talks about being the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. Sometimes we can think that means he dies in place of us, takes the proverbial bullet for us. Sure it can. But what John is saying, is that Jesus sets aside his interests, his job and career path, his busyness, his plans, his ambitions and everything else about moving his own life forward – he sets aside his whole life and he enters into the life of the sheep. Into all that is our lives. He becomes one of us. And no one tells him to, no one pays him for it.
Jesus comes to be inside of us.
That’s why he draws everyone to himself.
Because God speaks to us from the inside.
There is a lot of talk about evangelization in the church. Attendance is way down, and people are desperate to reverse that, to fill up the pews. There is a lot of frustration and criticism of the culture of the people that don’t come. There are organized efforts and movements to get more professional clergy vocations to handle the increasing workload. Clergy preach, laity promulgate the message in a variety of ways on the internet and media. And few people come.
You don’t have to be like that. Whoever it is that you love in your life, whether a spouse or SO, children, friends, parents, team members, coworkers, parishioners, neighbors – even strangers in a remote village on the other side of the hemisphere – you can lay down your life and enter into theirs. You can set aside your hobbies, your urgent responsibilities, your career path, your educational goals, your ambitions, your recreations – and enter into theirs. Not because someone else has obligated you. And not because there’s pay involved.
But just because you’ll come to be *inside* of them.
They will be drawn to you.
And you’ll make Jesus the Good Shepherd present in this world, in your own way.
Because God speaks to us from the inside.
I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. … And the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice. (Jn 10:11,4)