And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. – Luke 2:8
Though we grew up hearing this verse that starts the story of the first visitors to Christ’s birth, the only concept we had about what shepherds were in that time were idealized images of pastel-robed shepherds watching over flocks of pristinely-white sheep on verdant hillsides.
Several years ago, the Air Force sent us to Greece. Since it was a NATO assignment and English was used at work, we didn’t get sent to language training. We did a lot of self-study, but found our skills lacking as we were immersed into the culture. We found a house in a small rural village, where we were one of only two American families. It was isolating, especially for my wife (I had an instant group of comrades at work). Our first local friend was Dimitri, a shepherd who walked his flock of sheep and goats past our house every day. The kids would run outside when they heard the bells of his lead animals ringing outside, and Dimitri would carry on in Greek while my wife and kids answered in English. Hand gestures were imperative for this conversation to work.
Kids speak a universal language that breaks through all barriers
Even accounting for the fact that he wore contemporary western dress instead of coarse robes, Dimitri didn’t look much like the shepherds I remembered from Sunday School, or the baby-faced nativity figurines. His face was dark, weathered, and wrinkled from decades of sun, rain, snow, and wind. His goats and sheep weren’t pure white, either. Walking several miles a day in the dust of central Greece evidently isn’t conducive to fleece as white as snow.
Mary had a little lamb, it's fleece was as white as... well, old plaster
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.” - Luke 2:9,10
Angels and shepherds evidently are quite European in visage
OK, I guess I always understood why the shepherds would be afraid. Anyone who was sitting on a hillside one night who suddenly was presented with an angel and the “glory of the Lord” would have a right to be startled. After all, Moses got told to be careful to hide because looking upon the glory of the Lord could be fatal – see Exodus 33.
But for shepherds, it would be even more frightening. In Palestine at that time (and definitely near a city like Bethlehem), shepherds weren’t the elite. That’s still the case in Greece today. Despite the importance of their work to the Greek culture, shepherds are to a great extent outcastes. They’re not the folks that respectable people, much less angels, go out of their way to meet – on the contrary, most would go out of their way to avoid them. Most likely in their experience, the only time an important person came to talk to them directly was because they were in trouble… or owed taxes.
“I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” – Luke 2:10,11
For all the people? Even the shepherds?
The Angel announced that the Savior’s birth “was good news of great joy” for all the people, and the angel was sent to speak this great news to the commonest of common, not the elite. Who was this person? Χριστὸς κύριος – Christos Kurios… The Messiah and Lord.
Had the angel stopped with this last sentence proclaiming the birth, I wonder what the shepherds would have thought. Even after being told the Savior had been born to them and that this news of great joy was for all people, would they have been so bold to go see him? It would be easy to find him, they might think – the birth of a person of such import surely would be accompanied by great pomp and circumstance, and the news would travel throughout Bethlehem as all gathered to see him.
But the angel continued, and this next sentence must have rocked the shepherds’ world!
“This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” – Luke 2:12
You and I probably grew up with the same idea of what a manger was. We’ve got one on our mantles – made of crossed boards, filled with soft hay, and resting in-between the adoring parents who were wearing starched linen robes (Mary evidently hadn’t even broken a sweat). The stable was westernized as well – looking a lot more like the barn behind my house than the cave, lean-to, or mud-walled structure that likely was behind the inn. Jesus, by the way, already had long curly (golden) locks, and the cloths in which he was wrapped were bought at Macy’s. Of course, the family would have been easy to find since with their fair skin and European faces, they definitely didn’t look like most residents of Palestine. Why Herod had such a hard time, I don’t know.
...and that sheep must weigh 500 lbs!
Yet to shepherds who were not similarly encumbered by plastic nativity scenes, the idea of the Savior, Messiah, and Lord being wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger must have been absolutely jarring.
Now my wife, who has been a doula (labor assistant) and childbirth educator for about a decade, always says, “though we take all precautions, childbirth is never a sterile event.” But this is taking it a bit to the extreme, isn’t it? After all, I think we do a pretty good job of keeping the bedding for our horses, chickens, ducks, and goats in good shape, but the straight truth is that stalls don’t stay clean for long at all. In fact, I’m somewhat convinced that our animals purposely cross their legs until just after we’ve mucked their stalls.
Even if it had been right after we’d cleaned the place; however, I don’t think our barn would be the first place we’d plan for our child’s birth. Of course, I’m thinking from my Western, relatively privileged point of view again… for a shepherd, this might have been quite normal. But certainly, the King of Israel wouldn’t be born in such conditions, unless God was making some kind of statement.
“Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” – Luke 2:13,14
Glory to God indeed. A God so great that He made all heaven and all earth, all seen and unseen. A God who spoke from the Tempest to Job, challenging all who would question His nature, goodness, and power. A God who remains faithful despite others’ unfaithfulness.
And a God so overcome with love for all that He would humble Himself to the most lowly of circumstances.
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. – Luke 2:15-20
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.