Angels, Shepherds and a Baby

I’ve always been less interested in shepherds than magi. Perhaps from my days at Sunday School when the wise men wore velvet and crowns; I the shepherd wore a dressing gown with a tea towel on my head. Was their reality much better? They just stared at sheep all day, with little happening. Yet these men enter stage right in Luke’s narrative:

Luke 2: 8 Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.

So why the shepherds chosen to herald Christ’s birth?

1)      The gospel is good news for ordinary people, not just kings and princes. These working-class grafters were honoured over the rich. Their selection also shamed the religious establishment of the day. They were looked down upon by the Pharisees as they couldn’t keep the Sabbath. In 1 Corinthians 1:27-28, however, Paul writes “But God chose what is foolish to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are. “Jesus Himself said He came to ‘preach good news to the poor’.

2)      Adam had been placed in charge of the animals in Eden; the patriarchs had been shepherds. These men represented the whole of our race (Adam) as well as the hopes of the patriarchs.

3)      It’s also possible that they were no ordinary shepherds. The flocks they oversaw may have been reserved for temple sacrifice in Jerusalem. There is a Jewish tradition that in the environs of Bethlehem was a tower called Migdal Eder, ‘the tower of the flock.’ This Migdal Eder was a watchtower used for guarding and quality-assuring the sacrificial lambs. Micah may refer to it in 4:8 when he writes

And you, O tower of the flock,

The stronghold of the daughter of Zion,

To you shall it come,

Even the former dominion shall come,

The kingdom of the daughter of Jerusalem.”

It may have been their job to look after the lambs destined for sacrifice in the Jerusalem temple. Part of their job may have been to inspect lambs for sacrifice, ensuring only the unblemished one would meet the priest’s knife (as opposed to the butcher’s). Hence the angels go to them to send them on the inspection of the ultimate Lamb of God. The sheep they left behind suddenly became insignificant.

9 And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid.

It would appear that angels are terrifyingly scary. They’re certainly not fat boys with little wings. Some of them are covered in eyes and have multiple faces. One is so huge in the book of Revelation that his legs straddle the sea. Describing one in the New Testament, Matthew writes ‘His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow” (28:4) No wonder the soldiers shook. Oh, and they can apparently generate light.

 10 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. 11 For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: 14 “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”

If one alone was scary, how much more terrifying is this ‘multitude’ and ‘host’? This is a military expression. It suggests an army, terrifying, albeit brief, angelic invasion. They come bearing a message of peace. Not peace on earth, the cessation of war. Not feelings of peace, some kind of wispy happiness. Rather, they anticipate peace between humans and God. They could have been promising peace and goodwill towards men, or peace to men of good will. Remember, though, that peace is never a reward for having a good will- rather we humans are the objects of God’s will and His divine favour.

15 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.”

The older I get, the more anticlimactic Christmas becomes. The anticipation is better than the realisation. The eve is far more exciting than the day. The magic of childhood Christmas is not to be repeated. Might the first Christmas have been an anti-climax to those shepherds? Angelic harmonies, a glorious light display, a taste of heaven’s razzmatazz and splendour…followed by a young couple with a baby:

16 And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. 17 Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. 18 And all those who heard it marvelled at those things which were told them by the shepherds.

What did they see? Halos? A holy glow? Magi? Talking animals? No. Just a young family. The only difference is the place where the child lay. It may not have been a stable, but the manger or feeding trough would suggest this. It may have smelt of dung, been cold and rather dark. But this was no anti-climax. The shepherds knew that this child was the means by which God’s salvation would come to earth.

 19 But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them.

These verses record two reactions to the chapter’s events:

Mary: she doesn’t understand, but she ponders: thinks over, considers, doesn’t make a great show.

The shepherds: glorifying and praising God: having a degree of understanding, they were glad by what they saw and knew: they’d seen the sacrificial lamb; they’d seen the means of salvation.

If you have one of these reactions this Christmas, you’ll be more spiritual than most.