By Brother Damien Price
Br John Henry Shepherd is someone worth knowing.
John Henry was a kiwi Christian Brother. Back in the early 1990s he travelled to Melbourne to learn about Edmund Rice Camps. Upon his return to Dunedin he established these holiday camps for children from difficult life situations.
John Henry was dearly loved by the camp leaders. He had an infectious laugh and lived for others. Wearing his little tweed cap, John Henry was truly a “servant of the servants” as he washed dishes on camp, drove buses, cleaned bathrooms, affirmed leaders, listened to kids’ stories and with passion saw the dignity of all whom he met.
As we journey Advent and approach Christmas it is people like John Henry who come into my heart.
The Little Drummer Boy is one of my favourite Christmas songs. In this fable the small boy comes to the stable in Bethlehem for he is “a poor boy too”.
He brings his little drum with him for “I have no gift to bring that’s fit to give our King!” And, in response to the wonder of Emmanuel – God with us – the small boy “plays his best for him – on his drum”.
Francis of Assisi gifted us with so much: his embrace of poverty as a way to free the heart; his embrace of the leper that stood before him – knowing that the leper resides within all of us; his engagement with Islam and his desire to ‘rebuild the Church’ that had drifted far from the Gospel. All of this is gift.
Francis also gifted us with the beautiful tradition of the Christmas crib. Upon his return from the Holy Land, Francis sought to recreate what he had experienced there as a way for us to truly encounter the profound mystery of ‘God with us’.
So Francis, with the aid of wealthy nobleman Giovanni Vellita and the other friars, re-enacted and reconstructed that Bethlehem stable scene.
Growing up in Proserpine around this time of the year, the crib was set up and on Christmas night the figurine of the Christ child was carried high in the entrance procession as we with some gusto sang “O come all ye faithful!”
Sadly too often we have turned so much of the Christmas story into feel good materialism. The shopping centres are buzzing and their carparks are not for the faint of heart and the focus goes from presence to presents with so many eyes averted from the poor, powerless and the oppressed to the lure of the Boxing Day Sales.
For what is a crib without the reason for it all?
What the value of the choirs of King’s College Cambridge and St Peter’s Basilica if the poor who call the streets home do not hear words of welcome, acceptance and hope?
What is the value of kings bearing gold, frankincense and myrrh if the wealth of the rich is built upon the broken backs of the poor?
What is the value of tinsel, wrapping paper and flashing lights if Emmanuel’s poor lack the basics of life?
What is the value of tales of shepherds and kings if we can’t hear the voice of the voiceless ones?
What is the value of stories of inns and stables if the slum dweller or asylum seeker lack all hope?
When the images, story and symbolism of Christmas are intimately linked to the action of Emmanuel in our day-to-day world and lives – then we will truly know joy and peace – then this most sacred of nights and seasons will truly be hope for our world.
Then, one step at a time, all God’s people – rich and poor – will know within them what Mary knew (God’s total and unconditional love), see what the kings saw (Emmanuel in the extraordinary ordinary), hear what Joseph heard (words of welcome and hospitality though not in the inn) and experience what Christmas is ultimately about: God with us in each and every day – source of hope, light and love!
This is Christmas as Br John Henry Shepherd experienced it and everyday as he lived it: playing ‘his best’ – using his gifts however humble to give honour to our King; born in a stable in Bethlehem.
This Christmas and always may you know in the most intimate of ways the joy, the peace and the hope of the Christ deeply one with your heart!
Brother Damien Price is a former teacher in Brisbane schools including St Joseph’s, Gregory Terrace, St Patrick’s College, Shorncliffe, and St Laurence’s College, South Brisbane. He continues to work with schools across the country.