Editor’s note: Elizabeth Hughes is the Executive Director of FMS. After our Advent reflections on experiences of hospitality, she invites you to join her in a Christmas imaginative prayer, accompanying the shepherds to welcome Jesus to the world. What gifts and graces might have unfolded during the journey of welcome?

“O, Holy Night…the thrill of hope; the weary world rejoices.”

My companions this dark, cold evening are shepherds, tending their sheep, when the angel of the Lord appears to announce Jesus’ birth. These shepherds are considered outcasts in Israelite society, separated from the social and religious elite, by their humble work tending sheep. It is this very poverty that opens the shepherds to a trusting availability to the angel’s message. They joyfully embrace the risks of journeying in the darkness of the night to greet infant Jesus, and they enthusiastically welcome me to join them on this journey, despite the reality that I am a stranger to them.

In response to their welcome, I allow myself a moment to gratefully remember all the times I have been similarly welcomed with such unbridled hospitality. Perhaps one of my most powerful early memories was being welcomed by a family in Nogales, Mexico on a college immersion trip. My generous hosts insisted that a friend and I sleep in the only bed in their modest one-room home, while they slept on the cold floor in the store next door. Such hospitality felt undeserved. Yet I believe they offered a prism into the love God has for each of us: exceeding, overflowing, and more than we ever believe we deserve.

But, now, back to the present: the shepherds and I must keep on, journeying in haste to Bethlehem. It is an arduous and intimidating trip, and the shepherds warn me of common travel dangers. Still, Christ meets us in our vulnerability, and we draw strength from our kinship with one another. This is a level of community and intimacy with God to which I aspire.

As we walk, the shepherds share how excited they are to greet the infant Jesus. Their enthusiasm reminds me of the welcome I received upon my first trip to Tanzania several years ago. Wherever I went, I was greeted with choruses of “karibu” (“welcome”), and I felt the depth of all that was expressed with that salutation: greeting, hospitality, acknowledgement that our lives were intertwined at that moment in time. Hospitality is so valued there that even babies as young as 9 months old are encouraged to “greet properly” with customary hand gestures. What a gift to accompany the shepherds as they prepare their own greetings for the infant Jesus!

Finally, the shepherds and I arrive in Bethlehem and gently approach the manger. As guests, our hope was simply to be present with the Holy Family, offering a few words of welcome and support. Do you know what, to my surprise, actually transpires? For all our enthusiastic chatter on the way and for all our eagerness to express our greetings, when the moment of encounter came, we sit in silence.

Mary places newborn Jesus in one shepherd’s arms. In turn, we each hold the infant for a few minutes, silently savoring those precious moments. While I can’t say what the shepherds are experiencing, I am filled with a sense of wonder. A deep love and amazement for this child in my arms, reminiscent of the all-encompassing love I feel each time I hold my 5-month-old nephew Benjamin.  

Just as I instinctually desire to protect Benjamin from the harshness that exists in the world, so too do I desire to protect baby Jesus in my arms. In that moment, I realize anew that Christ is indeed in relationship with us in a very intimate way. It is no coincidence that the shepherds—the marginalized and vulnerable—were the first to greet Jesus. The shepherds see in Jesus, swaddled and innocent, their own vulnerability. In Jesus, God becomes vulnerable with us and draws us ever closer to God-self.

What a gift to be present on this holy night! To be invited into the thrill of hope. To be a part of the weary world rejoicing. To accompany Jesus’ first visitors and share the silent wonder of welcoming Jesus to the world.

Outside of my imaginative, prayerful journey, that holy night of centuries ago offers me a model today and questions to ponder: Were I to visit infant Jesus this evening, with whom would I journey? Which communities, perhaps because of their own vulnerabilities, would enthusiastically embrace the journey? Who is already welcoming me and so many of us in FMS with the same unbridled hospitality?

Reflection question: Engage your imagination and envision yourself at the manger on Christmas night. What gifts and graces unfold for you? Were you to visit infant Jesus this evening, with whom would you journey?