Christmas is one of the two most joyous feasts in the whole Christian year. It comes to us without the painful reminders of the Passion and Crucifixion we receive as we wind our way through Lent and Holy Week. It comes to us with some of the most definitive and striking images in all of Christianity: the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph seeking shelter in Bethlehem, the newborn babe lying swaddled in a manger, angelic light shining down upon a humble manger, the three wise men bearing their gifts, and, of course, the shepherds receiving their own angelic annunciation.
When it comes to the original hilltop shepherds, the Gospel According to St. Luke tell us,
Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:
“Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”
So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them. (2:8-20)
The shepherds are an important part of the Christmas story, not because the manger scene needs a few more figures to flesh it out, but because they, simple shepherds, not Peter, not Paul, not Mary Magdalene, nor even wise men from the East, those lowly shepherds watching their flocks by night were the very first evangelists. Remember: “Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds… Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them.” (vv 17-18, 20)
The shepherds went through the streets of Bethlehem and told everyone who would listen. They did not just tell a few friends; they made it “widely known.” Those who heard their message “marveled” at their story, which does not mean they necessarily believed the shepherds. In fact, they quite likely believed those men had spent one too many nights watching over the flocks by themselves. The shepherds did not concern themselves with what the locals in Bethlehem thought. Why should they? They had heard an Angel of the Lord proclaim the birth of the Messiah. The angel had given them a sign: you will see a newborn baby wrapped in rags and lying in a feeding trough in a horse stall next to an inn. Lo and behold, the angel was right! Not only had they seen the angel’s sign with their own two eyes, they had heard the choirs of Heaven burst into song and proclaim the reconciliation of God and man was at hand. It was not just one angel of the Lord who sang the heavenly anthem; it was “a multitude of the heavenly host praising God.” Who cares what some Bethlehem yokels thought? They had seen the newborn Messiah; they had heard the choirs of angels sing.
But why them? Of all of the people the angels could have picked to manifest their glory, why would they choose some poor shepherds working the third shift in the wilderness surrounding Bethlehem? Priests, scribes, rabbis, kings, diplomats, soldiers, they all could have received this message. Shepherds were, regrettably, not the most prestigious laborers in all Judea. Why them? It is altogether fitting that shepherds should be the first evangelists because the Messiah whom they proclaimed would define Himself in terms of their occupation.
While not the most esteemed occupation in all of Israel and Judah, shepherds had a long Biblical history. Once he left Ur, Abram was a shepherd. Jacob had won both of his wives by laboring as a shepherd. Once Moses fled Egypt, he lived for years as a shepherd and was seeking out his own lost sheep when he first encountered the LORD. The prophet Samuel called David to be king of Israel while he was tending his father’s flocks. The Prophet Amos was himself a shepherd in the land of Tekoa. Beyond these instances, the prophets frequently used the image of shepherds to refer to the leaders of Israel and Judah, both religious and royal. The judges and King Saul were each called to “shepherd” the children of the Lord. The twenty-third chapter of the Prophet Jeremiah contains an oracle against the shepherds of Israel who destroy the sheep of the Lord and continues to condemn false prophets. Likewise, the thirty-fourth chapter of the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel is a condemnation against the wicked shepherds of Israel that ends in a proclamation that God Himself will ultimately be the true shepherd of Israel. And, of course, we know that Our Lord proclaimed the He was “the Good Shepherd.” (St. John 10:14) In fact, the majority of the tenth chapter of St. John’s Gospel is Jesus fulfilling the Ezekiel’s prophecy about the Lord being the true shepherd of Israel.
The Good Shepherd was first proclaimed by a group of good shepherds. They were good shepherds, indeed. We can tell that because they were watching their flocks at night. They could have been sleeping or hiding out in some cabin drinking the cold of the night away, but they were not. They were dutifully fulfilling their rather thankless job. Alert and mindful of the dangers their flock faced, when they heard the angelic proclamation and anthem, they forsook everything to follow after the newborn Messiah and proclaim the Good News which they had heard.
What a lesson this is for us who call ourselves pastors in these days. We must dutifully tend to our flock while being ever alert for the dangers which beset them. We must also be ready and willing to respond to the unexpected leading of the Holy Spirit and the angels of the Lord. We must never cease to proclaim the Good News that has changed our lives regardless of the opinions of those who have not yet received the same Good News. We must remember that there is a flock that looks to us as their shepherd. In us, as their shepherd, they see and form their opinions of and relationship with The Good Shepherd. We would all do well to review Jeremiah 23, Ezekiel 34, and St. John 10 when we reflect upon our ordinations. May we, like these good shepherds of the Bethlehem country-side, never cease to make the wonders of Jesus Christ widely known and may we, like these humble shepherds whose lives were forever changed, never stop glorifying and praising God for all the things that we have heard and seen.
O God, who has caused this holy night to shine with the illumination of the true Light: Grant us, we beseech You, that as we have known the mystery of that Light upon earth, so may we also perfectly enjoy Him in heaven; where with You and the Holy Spirit He lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen