Years ago, when I was a confused young grad student who had strayed from the faith, I took the elevator in the university library and got off on the wrong floor.
Wandering into the religion section, I found myself standing before a shelf of books by St. Teresa of Ávila. Why I picked one up and began to read, I don’t know, but I was quickly captivated. I forgot about the French authors I was researching and went home with Teresa’s Autobiography.
And so, God broke into my life. One thing led to another, and before the week was out, Jesus opened my eyes, showed me his love, and called me to follow him. That’s when I began to know the reality of the incarnation: Emmanuel, “God with us.”
As I’ve reflected on this merciful intervention, I’ve become fond of the shepherds who appear at the birth of Jesus. They are the most ordinary figures in the Nativity scene. They remind me that God breaks into the lives of unextraordinary people doing everyday things—making pizza, working a night shift, sitting at a desk—and that he calls all of us to join in the work of bringing heaven to earth.
Who Are They? We’ve seen the Bethlehem shepherds and their cuddly sheep on so many pretty Christmas cards that it’s easy to picture them as humble innocents keeping prayerful night watches like monks, gentle as newborn lambs. Or perhaps we’ve heard that Jewish rabbis after the time of Jesus saw them otherwise—as dishonest and disreputable (though this wasn’t the view in the first century). Luke’#8217;s Gospel, however, doesn’t portray the shepherds as remarkable one way or the other. They’re just guys doing their job.
Though they were “living in the fields” on Christmas Eve, the shepherds were not nomadic tent dwellers. They came from peasant families who lived in Bethlehem, farmed the land, and kept some sheep and goats. Hired hands sometimes tended these flocks, but in a small village, shepherding was more likely the task of the families’ youngest male laborers. Since the average life expectancy was between twenty and thirty years, the shepherds were probably young—teens or even preteens!
These village shepherds didn’t always live out in the open. When fodder was available nearby—sometimes in harvested fields, where sheep were allowed to finish off whatever grain the gleaners left behind—the shepherds returned home and slept in their beds. Otherwise, they camped out with the flocks in the hills of the Judean wilderness. Either way, they weren’t terribly far from home: Shepherds’ Fields, the traditional pilgrimage destination for Christians since the fourth century, is about half a mile east of downtown Bethlehem. Just a few miles more, and you’re in the wilderness.
Why Shepherds? The way he tells the story, Luke seems to place the shepherds in the footsteps of Israel’s greatest king. Bethlehem was the “city of David.” It was in the nearby fields, where angels came to sing, that David’s great-grandmother had gone to glean barley (Luke 2:4, 11; Ruth 2). It’s also where David was tending sheep when he received his surprise summons to kingship (1 Samuel 16:1-13).
Though the glory of David’s reign was long gone by the time of Jesus, everyone knew the prophecies about the coming Messiah—a royal ruler from David’s line who would deliver Israel from its enemies. Some believed he would come from Bethlehem: the prophet Micah had spoken of it as the birthplace of such a ruler and described him as a shepherd-leader (Micah 5:1-4).
So wasn’t it fitting that shepherds were the first to hear the good news that “in the city of David a savior has been born” (Luke 2:11)? And their very job description sheds light on how this Messiah would exercise leadership.
A Shepherd’s Work. Domesticated sheep are clueless about where to find pasture and water and are easy prey for wild animals, so the shepherd’s main job is to keep the flock healthy and intact. In biblical times, his tools were simple: a curved staff for pulling careless sheep out of ditches and a slingshot, knife, and club or rod—all for dealing with predators and thieves. His voice, too, was a tool. Each shepherd developed a unique way of calling his sheep, who would quickly recognize it and respond. (That’s still true today. You’ll find some impressive demonstrations of “shepherd calling sheep” on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Coq_grSFlNs)
Also, a shepherd led his sheep—by contrast with those about to slaughter them, who drove the animals ahead of them. The sheep followed the shepherd because they knew he was looking out for them. An online video of a shepherd in modern Amman, Jordan, makes the point: his flock trustingly follows him across a busy four-lane highway! (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B0GQVuK2aVk)
All of this says something about Jesus, the “great shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrew 13:20). He is the good shepherd, who knows and cherishes his flock and speaks to each of us in a unique way. Right from birth, lying there in a manger and visited by shepherds, Jesus had “the smell of the sheep” (to quote Pope Francis’ famous phrase). He came to seek out the lost, offer himself as food and drink, and to lay down his life for the sheep.
There’s a lot for each of us to think about here, especially as we reflect on any shepherding-type relationships we may have—as parents, teachers, leaders, and caregivers of all kinds.
Companions for the Journey. Ordinary as they are, the Bethlehem shepherds respond to God in an outstanding way.
They believe and act. In a split second, the shepherds rush off to see the sign the angel had promised—just like Mary traveling “in haste” to see Elizabeth (Luke 1:39; 2:16). Without a gift to give or a guiding star to lead them, they hurry to Bethlehem as they are. Though the town was small, it probably took some door knocking before they found the swaddled baby in the manger. In fact, the Greek word used for “found” indicates that they needed to search.
The shepherds remind me of a middle-aged man I met on a Rome sidewalk just after the death of Pope John Paul II. He had been at home in California watching television coverage of the event when he had an urgent sense that he should attend the funeral. And so there he was, straight from the airport, with no map, no hotel room, no suitcase, and no knowledge of Rome—or the Catholic faith. Watching this pilgrim melt into the crowd headed for St. Peter’s Square, I had the feeling that God would honor his ready response. And I resolved not to dawdle next time the Lord invited me to take a step in faith.
They glorify and praise God. The shepherds are scared stiff when the angel appears and the glory of the Lord shines around them. But trading in their “great fear” for “great joy,” they join in the angels’ work of “glorifying and praising God” (Luke 2:9, 10, 13, 20).
In a special way, that’s what we do at every Mass. On Christmas Day, we will pray the Gloria, the very message that the shepherds heard. Though still on earth, we mingle with the angels. We enter into the worship of heaven and join the celestial beings offering praise to “the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb” (Revelation 5:13).
At every Mass, says St. John Chrysostom, “the angels surround the priest. The whole sanctuary and space around the altar are filled with the heavenly powers to honor him who is present on the altar.” How awesome! Though most of us don’t see those angels, as the shepherds did, we share the same reality.
They spread the good news. The shepherds give “the message that had been told them about this child,” first to Mary and Joseph, and then to anyone who will listen (Luke 2:17). Their enthusiasm reminds me of the apostles Peter and John, who couldn’t stop talking about the resurrection of Jesus even if they would be punished for it: “It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).
The shepherds have no idea how the life of this child in the manger will unfold. They have glimpsed just a tiny part of God’s saving plan. Yet they return to ordinary life full of joy and, it seems, ready to keep witnessing.
Singing with the Angels. Then there’s us. We have heard and seen so much more than the shepherds: Jesus’ teaching, his miracles, his mercy, and, most important, his death and resurrection. Like the shepherds, we sing with the angels at every Mass—and then we return to our everyday lives. May we live in the awareness that God can open the heavens and speak to ordinary people. May we, too, rejoice in God’s work and dedicate ourselves to spreading the good news about our newborn King!
Louise Perrotta is the special features editor for The Word Among Us.