“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.'” — Luke 2:8-11
Why the shepherds?
Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus may be the most commonly recounted at Christmastime because it includes most of the story’s familiar elements: the census decree by Caesar Augustus; Mary and Joseph’s long journey to Bethlehem, only to be turned away by the “innkeeper” (who doesn’t actually appear) because there was no room; the Christ child wrapped in swaddling cloths and placed in a manger. And, of course, the shepherds, who we are told were the first group of people to learn of the messiah’s birth.
The list of people whom the angels passed over for Jesus’ first birth announcement is long, but pointedly it includes priests, rulers and other people of power in Hebrew society. Yes, there were the wise men who also followed the star to Bethlehem — not in Luke’s gospel, but in Matthew’s — but unlike the shepherds their arrival isn’t pegged to the day of the birth. Only the shepherds were met by “a great company of the heavenly host” and urged to seek out the newborn king.
This not only would have seemed astonishingly incongruous at the time. It also would seem out of order in our own time, if we didn’t already know how the story ends.
Shepherding was one of the “dirty jobs” of that era. It was done by men of humble means and station in life. But it was also the profession of two of the Bible’s most important leaders, Moses and David, before they became heroes. Jesus would refer to himself as “the good shepherd” who would “lay down his life for the sheep.”
So the angels’ proclaiming the birth of Jesus first to a group of shepherds carried a double dose of symbolic meaning. Not only would the messiah come from, and circulate mostly among, humble people. He would serve them and willingly die for them, the ultimate example of a sacrificial leader. The ultimate shepherd.
Now these are facts I’ve heard many times during my 38 years, not only from the Bible but from the well-known carol: “The first Noel the angels did say/Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay.” But I’ve found it’s not uncommon for a particular bit of Scripture, though familiar, to jump off the page as though freshly written when the circumstances or timing are just right. This year, this scene from the Christmas story strikes me more profoundly than in the past. I think I know why.
More than anytime in recent history, 2016 was the year when the flock informed the shepherds of what a lousy job they’ve been doing. The political class, the news media, police involved in questionable-to-outrageous shootings of civilians — anything that fits into the category of “elite” or “establishment” received a bleating. And a beating, in the way of votes for Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and, overseas, Brexit.
One need not agree with those votes to see them for what they were: a rejection of institutions that were supposed to guard us but fell short. A rejection of our shepherds, or the secular ones anyway.
We don’t like to think of ourselves as sheep; it’s become something of a slur, especially among those who reject these same elites. But we are all in need of shepherds. Good ones. The kind who set aside pride and self-preservation to put the larger flock first.
If you would make a Christmas wish for the world this year, let it be for better shepherds among us.