Twelve Days of Christmas: Day 6

Shepherds Watching Their Flocks

Excerpted from Rubel Shelly, What Child Is This? (West Monroe, LA: Howard Publishing Company, 1996).

As he sat with his fellow shepherds that night, he was alone with his thoughts. He was a conscientious, hard-working man. He was both honest and God-fearing. He was a good shepherd. So it bothered him that some people looked at him as they did and assigned him such a bad name.

The role of shepherd had not always been so hard on one's self-esteem. It had always been hard work, but only in recent generations had it become despised work. It was difficult for him to understand as he sat near the small hillside fire he and his partners had built that night.

The testimony of shepherds was not accepted in formal proceedings of Jewish courts. On the sabbath, they could not enter the synagogue owing to the ceremonial uncleanness that attached to them because of their work. It didn't seem fair to him that all shepherds should be lumped together, condemned collectively, and effectively left outside the community of Israel.

If people would only remember, King David had been a shepherd in his youth. Out of that experience, he wrote a beautiful psalm in which Yahweh is pictured as the shepherd of his people.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he restores my soul.

This shepherd understood the imagery well. A shepherd who really cared for his sheep would move them periodically to locate the best grazing. Knowing that sheep are frightened by fast-moving water, he would seek out a place where the water was fresh but quiet enough for them to drink without fear. All day long -- whether feeding them, watering them, driving them, or resting them -- he would call their names, sing to them, and touch them. The sheep knew their owner, and it both reassured and refreshed them to be treated so tenderly by them.

He guides me in paths of righteousness
for his name's sake.
Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

He knew about choosing a secure path for his sheep. It needed to be clearly marked and as non-threatening as possible. He would continue talking aloud as he led his flock and allowed his familiar voice to show the direction the sheep were to go. And if the sun were to set quickly and make the trip back to the fold a bit scary with its dimming light and long shadows, he would move the flock along with the reassuring touch of his rod and staff. For him to be that close seemed to reassure the sheep that no harm would come to them.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord

Even if wild dogs or other predators should be nearby, a good shepherd would see that the sheep were fed at the end of the day. More than that, he would inspect each for cuts or wounds and pour soothing oil on any injury he found. The sheep would be sheltered in safety, for a good shepherd would risk his own life before he would let harm come to the sheep in his care.

Maybe the fact that this noble sense of being a shepherd had been lost among so many who were then working in the fields accounted for the bad image of his profession. With his family's long history of shepherding, though, he had been taught to take a different view of the work than most of the hired workers seemed to have.

The hirelings were farmers forced to do something else by hard times or craftsmen who had not been successful at their carpentry or masonry. Some of them didn't care about the sheep in their charge. Some were dishonest and had to be watched at the end of any common grazing period lest they leave with one or two more sheep than they had at the start of the day. This good man hated that he had to bear the image of those few.

Strange as it might sound, it even occurred to him that night that the association of so many shepherds around Bethlehem with the Jerusalem priests might be responsible for their bad image. Most of the Bethlehem shepherds sold lambs each spring to the priests who then sold them in the temple marketplace as animals for sacrifice. He had seen some things in Jerusalem at festival time -- bazaar-type hawking of animals around the temple and price gouging by the men handling animals -- that offended him greatly. But how could the people feel that he had any part in that? He deplored turning a place of worship into a carnival as much as any devout man of Israel.

Why were all these thoughts rushing in on him tonight? They were making him melancholy on a beautiful night.

His flock was already settled for the night. He wished he could banish these brooding thoughts out of his mind so he could enjoy the clear evening. He needed some sleep, too, for he would have to take his turn at watch in the middle of the night.

Then he heard something from the direction of his sheepfold. Was a predator near? What was disturbing his sheep? He moved to them quickly and discovered the problem in an instant. A ewe was giving birth. By the time he had arrived, she had already dropped her lamb. There had been no bleating or crying. It is simply not in the nature of sheep, it appears, to thrash about and make noise. There is an amazing restraint and meekness about them.

As the shepherd watched the mother nuzzle and begin to clean her lamb, he saw that it was a male. And he thought to himself that within a year it would likely be offered in sacrifice to the Lord on the Jerusalem altar. As a shepherd whose task it was to present such lambs ready for sacrifice, he would take care to see that this lamb was spotless and without blemish. Only a flawless lamb was proper to be offered to the Lord.

Back at the fire now, he was torn between conflicting feelings. On the one hand, there was the matter of his image as a shepherd. On the other hand, there was the issue of God's choice of the shepherd-image to represent his own relationship to Israel. Is a shepherd's lot to suffer indignities or to give glory to God? Can anyone who is despised and rejected of men be close to the heart of God? He thought for a moment about sharing his meditations with the other shepherds crouched near the fire beside him. But, no. It was time now to rest rather than talk about irresolvable conjectures. Maybe things like this would be made plain with the arrival of Messiah.

Suddenly he and his fellow shepherds were startled by a brilliant light shining around them. No, startled is not strong enough a word. They were terrified. Some of them fell to their knees, and others were frozen on their feet or in their typical crouching posture near the fire. He had never seen anything like it before. It was like the sun shining at midday. He was too frightened to run but too confused to speak. What was happening?

Then he heard a voice. It was not one of the other shepherds, whose voices he knew well. In fact, the voice was not coming from their direction. It was coming from above, from the direction of the light. Shielding his eyes as he lifted his head, he looked in the direction of the voice and saw what was unquestionably an angel. The angel was saying, "Do not be afraid. 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."

Was the whole world hearing this news simultaneously? Surely he and his shepherd-friends were not being singled out to receive this announcement. Would God reveal the most wonderful news the world had ever heard to men whom others held in contempt? Would the coming of the divine Messiah be announced to shepherds before being told to priests?

Did the angel say that the Savior-Messiah had been "born" today? Could the Lord's anointed be coming into the world in so humble a way? And why would it be happening at Bethlehem rather than in Jerusalem? Was this shepherd's hearing failing? Was his mind playing tricks? No, for the angel continued, "This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger."

A sign indeed! The "sign" was not that a baby should be wrapped in long strips of cloth to keep him warm, for every child born to a Jewish mother of that time was warmed and protected with swaddling clothes at birth. But that this child ÄÄ divine, the Savior, the Messiah ÄÄ should be lying in a manger? A manger is a feeding-trough for animals! Usually cut into the rock walls of a cave or made of wood if the sheepfold was outdoors, a manger was no place for such a precious child to be laid on the day of his birth. Had there been no other place for him? More incredibly still, had he somehow suffered a rejection at his birth? And was that why the announcement of his birth was being made to people who were outcasts themselves?

Then, startling the shepherds all over again, a great company of other angels appeared with the one who had spoken. They joined together and, as with one voice, said: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."

As quickly as they had appeared, the angels left the shepherds and vanished from view. The light faded. And the night was still again.

No one dared to break the stillness. The moment had to be savored and kept in memory. Then, as if on cue, the silence was interrupted. Every shepherd was speaking to every other and saying the same thing: "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about."

They hurried into Bethlehem, leaving the animals to their sleep in the middle of the night. From what the angels had said, they knew that the child most likely had not been born to a family native to the town. Otherwise why would the baby be in a manger? So they asked at public places about new people who were in town.

They especially wanted to know about any woman who was expecting a child. Some people treated them rudely, and others did not reply at all. Finally, a kindly innkeeper told them that he had seen a couple earlier that night, that the woman was indeed pregnant, and that he had offered them his stable for the night because there was no room in his inn.

The shepherds looked at one another with an instinctive awareness that they had found the child. They moved in the direction the innkeeper had pointed. Cautiously and reverently, they moved near the mouth of the cave. Could this be the place? There were no crowds, no heavenly lights, no angels in chorus. Would God show this special child to these men alone on the night of his birth?

One of them called, and an exhausted-looking man appeared. He identified himself as Joseph, explaining that he was in the hillside cave by permission. He appeared frightened that the newcomers might evict him and take back the space for themselves. He explained that he had just reached the city from Nazareth. He was not sure whether to say anything about Mary and the baby.

The shepherds interrupted to allay his fears. They were not there to reclaim the shelter for their animals. They were not there to kick out Joseph. They were seeking the Christ-child, the Messiah, for an angel had told them that he had been born today in Bethlehem and would be found lying in a manger.

Joseph excused himself to tell his wife that the men were waiting outside. Then he returned, called them in, and asked that they repeat for Mary what had just happened to them. For the moment, however, they said nothing. They moved beside the manger and positioned themselves in relation to the baby's face and the dim light of the cave to see what such a child looked like.

The shepherd who had only a couple of hours ago seen a newborn lamb was looking now at the newborn Savior-Messiah of Israel. Tears ran down his cheeks as he fell to his knees in worship.

Little could he know that he was looking at the one who was destined to be The Good Shepherd who would lay down his own life for God's flock. This child was born to be the Lamb of God who had come to take away the sins of the world. He would come to Jerusalem years hence to offer himself as God's ultimate Passover Lamb. In that act, he would make all previous sacrifices of lambs meaningful and all future sacrifices of them unnecessary.

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