Christmas Eve/Isaiah 9:2-7 and Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)
A couple of weeks ago, the Providence Preschool staged its annual Christmas Program – “Jesus: Light of the World.” I arrived early, prepared to make my usual welcome and pray for God’s blessings on all assembled, when I encountered an unhappy shepherd.
This one little boy had also arrived early on that night, had been clad in the robe and head-covering deemed appropriate for a shepherd of that time and place. While waiting for the show to begin, he and one of his shepherd friends had curled up on chairs in a back hallway, and he had drifted off to sleep.
In the way of little ones who are wakened abruptly from sleep brought on by a long day of excitement followed by the cover of darkness and the chill of the winter air, he was not happy when the teacher roused him from his winter’s nap. He was very unhappy – and promptly burst into tears.
I came around the corner to find him standing there, alone, rubbing his eyes, tears streaming and rapidly building to choking, breath-stealing sobs. I went down on my knees before him, placed my hand on his little shepherd shoulder, and began to talk. Words, a stroke of the hand, more words, another stroke of the hand – all in a somewhat vain attempt to settle him down for his role in the show.
“You’re a shepherd!” I finally said. He nodded. “You have the most important job in the show!” I said. “Did you know that?” A peak of eyes appeared above his fists as he shook his head back and forth. “Did you know that the shepherds were the very first people that God decided to tell when the baby Jesus was born?” Another head shake. Kneeling there on the floor, my hand stroking up and down this little shepherd arm, I explained the importance of shepherds, the critical role they played in the Christmas drama, the most important part in the whole show.
I wish I could say my words made all the difference and that little shepherd joined the others on stage. He did not. But I hope he remembers something of what I said that night. Because it was true – the shepherds had the most important role of all.
God could have chosen to have angels unfurl banners across the sky over Herod’s Jerusalem to announce the birth of the newborn king. God could have showered the world with fire-lit fliers inked with a complete genealogy, angel songs, and a prayer. God could have placed the birth in the center of the world – could have knocked Herod right off his throne and had Mary deliver her baby right there in the palace.
But God did not do any of those things.
Instead, God sent God’s angels out across the countryside until they found simple shepherds, living in the fields, watching their flocks, protecting them through the night. To these peasant men, these unskilled laborers, God sent Word of the birth of a Savior – for them. Their fear turned to amazement, they traveled to Bethlehem to see the newborn king for themselves. They found the baby in a place that likely was familiar to them – a simple stable, a lean-to. For this king was born not “in the midst of gold and riches, but in the midst of dung,” as St. Jerome writes, “in a stable where our sins were filthier than the dung.”[i] “The message comes to the shepherds, rather than to [Emperor] Augustus or to any other person of power, because Jesus’ destiny is to unseat the powerful.”[ii]
The shepherds heard the angel voices in the night, and they went “with haste” to find this baby. They found a Holy Family that did not look like our beautiful Fontanini figures. The real Holy Family “looked like the people you see on the six o’clock news – refugees, sent to wait in some strange ugly place, with all their boxes and sacks around them. … Crowding in, straining to get a look, [they saw] an infant, wrapped in cloth like any other, lying in a makeshift crib.”[iii]
And returning to their fields, they told everyone they met what they had seen, “glorifying and praising God.” Like the good shepherd whose birth they had witnessed, they acted in the way of shepherds everywhere, delivering the good news to others who needed to hear it.
Yes, that little boy in his
shepherd’s robe played an important part in the Christmas story, even though he
never walked on stage. Because the
shepherds? They had the most important
role of all.
[i] Richard Vinson, Luke, 61
[iii] Ibid., 62-63