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Why Shepherds?

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By Marc Massery (Dec 23, 2017)
Every Christmas, we sing about the shepherds who kept watch over their flock by night, but over the centuries, we have lost a sense of their deeper significance.

In the first century, the Jewish people treated shepherds as second-class citizens. Shepherds, after all, often could not observe the Sabbath properly because their flocks required daily attention. Furthermore, the nature of their gritty work made it almost impossible for them to remain clean enough to follow the demands of ceremonial law. But God chose these outcasts to receive the first announcement of the Incarnation.

While their part of the world lay asleep, an assembly of shepherds near Bethlehem remained vigilant. They looked out for thieves, predators, or anything that might threaten their flock. Still, they had no reason to expect an intrusion of the supernatural. It would have seemed more reasonable for a message regarding the birth of a king to come to the elite of the nation.

Yet the most powerful men in the world did not receive any announcement regarding the birth of the Savior. Instead, a few pagan philosophers had to deduce the birth of Christ from their knowledge of the stars. Even after the Wise Men discovered the star in the east, they did not know where they could find this Child. Herod had to call in the chief priests and the scribes; they could only say where Scripture historically said the birth of such a savior would take place — Bethlehem.

Herod feared that this king would replace him. So he sent the Wise Men to find this Child. Despite telling the Magi otherwise, Herod intended to destroy Christ as soon as he could.

But the shepherds in their lowliness posed no threat to Christ. God's angel, therefore, told the shepherds not only who was born but where to find Him, how to recognize Him, and what it all meant.

The angel said, "[T]o you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger" (Lk 2:14).

After this announcement, the shepherds went "with haste" to Bethlehem. They said, "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us" (Lk 2:15). They did not go to see if what the angel said was true. They already believed. In their humility, they sought the Savior with joy.

Still, these lowly shepherds had a unique importance even before the angel appeared to them. In the Temple of Jerusalem, the priests would sacrifice an unblemished lamb every day, both morning and evening. According to Scripture scholars, these shepherds likely pastured those same flocks from which the Temple authorities took their lambs for sacrifice.

Even knowing that their sheep had special importance, these shepherds left their flock alone to seek Christ. They abandoned the atoning sacrifice under the old law in order to seek the eternal sacrifice, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
The imperfect means of atonement, of the Old Covenant, were already beginning to pass away.

If it had not been for the description that the angels had given them, the shepherds would not have found Christ. Knowing that a Child was born in Bethlehem would not have been enough information alone. What was unique about the angel's description of Christ was that He was "lying in a manger." Probably few babies were born that night in the small town of Bethlehem. Surely, only one Child was so poor as to be lying in a feeding trough. The shepherds, therefore, recognized Christ on account of His poverty. They did not seek royalty in a palace, but an impoverished family, partially exposed to the elements. They did not seek a monarch surrounded by lords and servants, but paupers among ox and ass. They did not look for a ruler sitting on a throne, but a newborn cradled in a feeding trough. Because of Christ's poverty, the shepherds approached the Creator of the world without hesitation. Christ appeared to them as they were: poor, unclean outcasts from society. In the Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, Christ appeared to St. Faustina as a child. He said to her, "I keep company with you as a child to teach you humility and simplicity" (Diary, 184).

We, too, look for the Savior of the World in His poverty every time we go to Mass. We seek Him under the appearance of bread, the most ordinary substance in the world. We, therefore, do not hesitate to approach the Creator. When we encounter the incarnate God, He transforms our hearts so that we can return to our everyday lives like the shepherds, "glorifying and praising God for all [we have] heard and seen" (Lk 2:20). We have found the Good Shepherd and the Lamb of God. We cannot stop glorifying and praising Him. God has made Himself like us, so that we might make ourselves like Him.

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