Christmas in the North East Kingdom:
The late Bishop Sheen on his television show mentioned a woman who argued that the world was supported on the back of a turtle. He asked, “What supports the turtle?” “Another turtle.. It’s turtles all the way down.” For us this Christmas, it’s shepherds. Shepherds all the way down and from the beginning.
From the beginning the Biblical Story is about shepherds. The word Hebrew, my Hebrew Bible professor told me, is derived from Habiru* which means people of the land outside the city gates.The Biblical world view is one from the outside. It is often the perspective of those who look through the eyes of nomads, shepherds, prophets, exiles, and those on the margins. Shepherds are often distrusted and a flock of sheep can do a lot of damage to farmland and forests. Those people outside the city gates also organize and become a real threat to the status quo.
Luke’s inclusion of the Shepherds as a center piece of the Nativity is a classic biblical world view that looks in from the outside. The outsiders are the ones who are first given the news of the birth. It is to shepherds not Kings or the powerful the angel appears.
Every year at this time people from Heartbeet in what we call the Northeast Kingdom in Vermont, perform the Shepherds Play. Heartbeet is one of those rare communities where people with developmental disabilities and so-called ordinary people live together in community. My son and his girlfriend as well as over forty others live here year round, farm the land, tend the animals and celebrate the seasons. Heartbeet owes its origins to the inspiration of Rudolph Steiner who also established the first Waldorf School for the children of factory workers in Walldorf, Germany.
During the Christmas season it is the tradition to celebrate “The Shepherd’s Play”. The play originated from farmers in a small town on the Danube River, East of Vienna. The Oberufer Shepherd’s Play at first appears as a traditional Nativity Play. Mary and Joseph an Angel, innkeepers and others set the scene for the main players: The Shepherds. The boisterous, slap happy, stunned, cold and hungry shepherds are the laugh a minute comic relief to the more reverential scenes of the holy family and the Angel. Into the holy night the Shepherds bring mirth, slapstick, and perspective.
At Heartbeet the play includes some of the classic outsiders: those among the community with special needs. At Heartbeet they are insiders, in fact in the play they are the innkeepers. Chris and Annie, my son and his beloved, are the kinder ones, but eventually do what they would probably never do in real life, they turn their backs on the holy family. It is a play of course and yet these two with Down Syndrome shine the light of this season on our failure to find room for the Child of God to be born. The city of our lives are overcrowded and over taxed and we can find no room.
But the shepherds hear and show up. It is no surprise to them that Jesus is born in a stable or a cave or in the middle of a city street. It is no less true for Heartbeet. There is life being born here, where those who were on the very edges of our communities have found an Inn that did not turn them away, and looked to them as those with gifts not disabilities. Chris and Annie write poetry, help at the soup kitchen in town, work in the community of Hardwick and help with their friends to create art, weave, and sustain the Heartbeet community by farming the land.
This Christmas Eve the community will walk to the barn to visit the animals. Cows, horses, chickens, ducks and geese, pigs and maybe even sheep, a few years ago they even had llamas: each of these creatures will be treated to the visits of all the people and some of their families. Candles will light the large room and songs will be sung. The presence of the holy will be honored in that place.
And if you chose to come, you would not be turned away.
* Habiru references the large number of semitic peoples who were largely nomadic and rebels, threats to the extablished Egyptian order. Others dispute this theory. They say the origin or the word Hebrew is from ibri, which means from across the river or those who crossed the river. Either one is fine with me. Yet the idea that the Hebrew people were a collection of nomadic peoples who came to the worship of One God and bonded around that faith, is attractive to me.