“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.”Luke 2:8
With the first of this year’s snow covering the ground, evergreen wreaths appearing on doors, and holiday movies trending on Netflix, my mind begins to contemplate the coming of Christmas. I’m rather astonished that, at my age, I still have questions about the ancient nativity story? I have heard and retold the Christmas narrative innumerable times, yet, even now, questions continue to arise. Lately, I’ve been pondering the role of the shepherds.
When choosing parts in our annual No-Rehearsal Christmas Pageant, my friends always dress as shepherds. “The shepherds get all the best songs, they say.” For millennia people have speculated about this small group of unnamed souls who were just going about their business when, quite unexpectedly, they found themselves thrust into the center of the nativity story and the main focus of some pretty great songs.
Luke’s biblical telling is brief, to the point, and succinct but certainly lacking in details. For example, did the angels appear to others that night or only these particular shepherds? Were there others who were too afraid, too busy, too tired, or just too disinterested to go in search of this mysterious child? Perhaps other seekers simply got lost and never found the stable. Luke says the shepherds discussed what to do about the angel’s message, but I wonder…did everyone agree or have to be convinced? Did they list the pros and cons? How did they decide? Luke also tells us that later the shepherds told others about what they had seen, but what exactly had they seen in that stable? Were they alone with the Holy Family, or were there others present that Luke simply failed to mention? These omissions prompt me to question, imagine, and wonder.
During Biblical times shepherding wasn’t the domain of outcasts and the lowly, as some have suggested… Although I would suppose that spending so much of their time outdoors and in the company of rather smelly animals didn’t garner them many party invitations…On the other hand, because sheep were so crucial to the community’s life, it naturally follows that caring for and protecting them was a necessary and valued job. Abraham, Moses, and King David were among many biblical patriarchs who spent time as shepherds. Most often, the youngest child…male or female… in the family had this duty. I think of it as a ‘starter job,’ much like Saturday night babysitting was when I was a teenager. Babysitters were entrusted with caring for a family’s most precious treasures, but once the wee ones were asleep, it was snacks and TV. So, instead of the thick-bearded, often wizened old men portrayed in many paintings, it is more likely that the shepherds on that hillside outside Bethlehem that night were teenagers or young adults. Knowing the penchant teens have for darkness and nighttime…maybe… just maybe, the angel appeared to them because they were the only people still awake. Additionally, youthful peer pressure and collective courage might have guaranteed they would leave their fields, go into the village, and seek the child.
“And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.”Luke 2:9 KJV
It was a busy night in Bethlehem for the shepherds, but what happened next? What was the conversation when the young shepherd returned home later that morning and told what they had seen?
Grandfather. You won’t believe what happened last night.”
“Was there a problem with the sheep? Bears? Lions? You and the lads didn’t get up to any mischief, did you?”
“Oh, no. It was nothing like that, and you’re not going to believe it.”
“OK… I’m ready. Go on with your story.”
“Well…you know, it’s kinda lonely watching sheep by yourself, so we decided to combine our flocks. When the sheep were bedded down, we were just sitting around the fire, telling stories and jokes, when the sky was suddenly filled with a blinding light. It was amazing, and get this…there were singing angels.”
“Angels? Really? Come on, are you making this up? Did you guys get into that new wine?”
“No, I swear it’s true.”
“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”Luke 2: 9-10 KJV
“It was amazing. One of the coolest things ever. Well…once we got over being scared half to death, that is. I mean, it was unreal. OK…So, the head angel said something amazing had happened in town, and we should go there immediately. Something about a special baby being born. A savior or some such thing. The angel was a little sketchy on the details of how to find this baby, though. No, directions. Just find some stable in Bethlehem. Do you have any idea how many stables there are in Bethlehem? Well, once the angels left, we talked about whether or not we should go find this baby.”
“Don’t tell me you left the sheep.”
“Of course not. We left the youngest ones behind, and the rest of us took off. Running through the night was much more exciting than watching a bunch of sleeping sheep.”
“So, did you ever find the stable and the baby?”
“It took us a while and was a little dicey at times. We didn’t want to be found peeking into a stranger’s barns, and who would have believed us if we’d said an angel sent us? But yes! Yes, we finally found the stable, the tiny baby, and his tired parents. It was really something to finally find this baby, just like the angels had told us we would. We were a little hesitant at first, but when the parents beckoned us to come closer to get a better look, how could we refuse? As we drew near, the mother pulled his blanket back so we could see the sleeping child. The funny thing was that all we saw was a normal baby…very pink and wrinkly. An actual angel had told us that this was a miraculous baby, but he looked rather ordinary to us. Maybe we just have to let him grow up a bit. Wow! What a night.”
Well…it could’ve happened that way.
“And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.“luke 2:17-18 KJV
I love the idea that the first ones on the scene…the shepherds…may have been teenagers or had teens among them. They heard the news, and together they ran boldly toward it.
Could it be that our youth…like the shepherds…are the hope of Christmas made manifest? No angels foretold their coming; they arrived in the world as ordinary infants…red and wrinkly, and like the shepherds, many are busy working starter jobs. Still, this latest generation…Gen Z… is also taking action on climate change, working for racial and reproductive justice, supporting LGBTQ and gender equality issues, and lobbying to establish sensible gun laws. They hear the message and are running toward it. Should we wait for them to report back on what they see, or can we join them in searching for the baby in the barn?
The days of my youth are long gone, now only visible in the rearview, but I can choose to live the rest of my life in the manner of the shepherds. Perhaps, that is the lesson that all my questions are teaching me.
“Instructions for living a life. Pay attention, Be astonished, Tell About it.”Mary oliver