Tonight is Christmas Eve. In countless homes around the world, families have assembled the figurines in their nativity scenes, the simple stable and animals… the baby in the manger…. Mary, the young and humble mother, and Joseph the carpenter. The Maji would come later but for now, we are struck with how lowly the setting is in contrast to the divine reality taking place. None of these nativity scenes would be complete without the shepherds, remembering that silent night – that holy night — on which the lowly came into an encounter with the divine.
Shepherds were considered “unclean” by the people of first century Israel, and they were despised in a way that put them on par with tax collectors. They were with the sheep twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. They had no time or opportunity to purify at the temple. Most were illiterate. Yet, they were dedicated to their calling, and willing to die to protect their flocks.
It was to the shepherds in the fields surrounding Bethlehem that the angels announced the birth of Jesus. They could have appeared to the priests in the Temple, or to the Pharisees, or the Sadducees. They could have appeared to the King and his advisors. They could have appeared to the most wealthy in the land. But instead, they chose the lowly shepherds.
The same shepherds who were unreliable as witnesses and not allowed to testify in the courts because their word could not be trusted, were given the good news and told to spread it. Just as the approaching Messiah was announced by a wild man who ate locusts and honey, now His birth would be announced by – of all people – shepherds. But first they hurried to see for themselves.
How did the shepherds feel, knowing they were unclean, entering into the presence of the newborn Saviour? They didn’t seek, they were chosen. They were invited. And as they approached the baby in the manger, they were welcome.
In her Magnificat, Mary sang of God bringing down the powerful from their thrones and lifting up the lowly, and here it was, happening before her eyes: the lowly coming into an encounter with the divine.
This was not the first time God raised the humble to mighty: To protect the flock from predators, the shepherd had to be very handy with a slingshot. A thousand years before the birth of Jesus, God raised a humble shepherd boy who was good with a sling shot to become the mighty King David. In the best-known of all his psalms, David compared the Lord to a shepherd and himself to a sheep.
Jesus would also make the connection, calling himself the Good Shepherd. He keeps watch over us in the same way a shepherd watches over his sheep, protecting us from harm. By comparing Himself to a shepherd, He did not merely become human, He become lowly. He became humble. We were made in God’s image, but God took on our human condition.
What happened to the shepherds after that Silent, Holy night? After they spread the news of the birth of the Messiah, they most likely returned to their fields and resumed their normal lives, but their lives would have been forever changed. Did they realize that in the middle of that night, they foreshadowed what was yet to come?
Given the location of the fields between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, it is most likely these were the Temple flocks, ceremonial lambs being raised for sacrifice in the Temple. Jesus became our lamb; He died to forgive the sins we committed. Washed by the blood of the sacrificial lamb, we become clean.
The shepherds were symbolic of the simplicity of that first Christmas. Were they surprised to see the King of Kings … the Prince of Peace … God incarnate laying in a manger instead of an elaborate bed, on straw instead of the finest linen? In the midst of all the commercialism and frantic shopping, their story brings us back to the true meaning—the birth of Jesus, through which the unclean would become clean. As the baby in the manger grew, He would cleanse lepers and He would eat and drink with sinners. He constantly brought the lowly into an encounter with the divine.
This is something that parallels us all. The unclean shepherds were the first to hear the news of Jesus’ birth by the angels. The unclean became clean. When we ourselves are unclean, that is when we most need to hear the good news. We so desperately need to become clean.
This Christmas, and in the year to come, let us never forget that, like the shepherds, we have been chosen. We are invited. And as we approach Jesus in the form of the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist, we are welcome. We come into an encounter with the divine. And the unclean become clean.