And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.
Our theme for this week is “Go like the shepherds.” The shepherds, as we know from the Nativity story, were probably the most unlikely people to be chosen for anything positive. They weren’t even part of the census in Bethlehem, no one was interested in counting them. Bethlehem was filled with people, probably tens of thousands of people in this small town. Every bed was taken, hence there was no room anywhere to house Mary and Joseph. There was probably a lot of noise in town as families got together for reunions.
Just outside the gates of the city were shepherds, probably shivering in the cold night air, watching their flocks. Shepherds were nomads, they didn’t have a home, which is maybe why no one was interested in counting them. They were also poor—one didn’t graduate from being a shepherd to being something else. They were probably stuck as shepherds for life. And being a shepherd was a life that no one would have wanted for their child. The work of a shepherd was dangerous and difficult. Not only was there no place to call home, shepherds were responsible for large flocks. It was not unusual for one shepherd to watch over 100 sheep. The Bible supports this number in Luke 15, where we read “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it?” The truth is, if that ever happened to a shepherd, he would probably just cut his losses and not go looking for one sheep, and risk something happening to the other ninety-nine.
If the ratio of sheep to shepherd was 100-to-1, imagine a flock of 500 sheep with five shepherds. This was probably pretty accurate. Because sheep were not the smartest of animals, they had to be guided and prodded by the shepherd. It would take all the strength of five shepherds to guide 500 sheep and keep them all moving in the same direction. Making this even harder was the wolves that would attack the sheep. Sheep move slow, wolves move quickly, which would make the sheep easy targets. So the shepherds would constantly be encircling their flock, both guiding and protecting. And when the flock spread out over a hillside to graze, that would be a very large area for the shepherds to patrol. This was not an easy job.
So imagine several shepherds and several hundred sheep on the hillside outside of Bethlehem. It is a cold, winter night. There are no bright lights to help see wolves and other predators. There is no electric fence to keep the flock safe if wolves decide to attack. It is a scary, lonely experience each night, made even more lonely knowing that there is something big going-on in Jerusalem, and the shepherds were excluded from it.
And all of a sudden, an angel appears levitating in the sky. That would have only added confusion and fear to an already confusing and scary scene. But the angel offers words of comfort to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid, for I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to 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 the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2: 10-12) The shepherds were not scholars, we don’t know if they were Jewish, though let’s presume for a minute that they are. We don’t know if they went to temple regularly, but we can probably presume that they didn’t, because there was never any time off from the flocks and because shepherds were nomads, even if they went to the temple, it would be a different temple each week, they wouldn’t be part of a community. They probably had no idea of what the angel was talking about—Savior? Christ? Lord?
To complete the message, a multitude of the heavenly host joins the one angel and sings a beautiful hymn, lighting up the sky as if it were day, and singing with thousands of voices “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased!” (Luke 2:14) What a message. Angels in heaven, praising God, and also praising the shepherds, wishing them peace because they are “men with whom He is pleased!” This has got to be encouraging for them as well.
The hymn of the angels will be sung in church before Divine Liturgy this morning. It is called “The Great Doxology.” Even in the largest parishes, the choir will number 20-30, and in many parishes it will be smaller than that. Imagine what a choir of 20,000-30,000 angels would sound like, what kind of impression that would make, how loud it would be. Somehow all of Bethlehem missed it. Too distracted. Imagine if a choir of 25,000 angels appeared over your local mall today—we’d probably miss it too. Too busy fighting for parking, shopping for sales and being distracted by the phone. It is possible to see how that could happen.
This amazing encounter left the shepherds with a decision to make, which we will discuss in the next reflection. This one hopefully helped us better understand the scene and get the sense of what it would have been like to be a shepherd on the night of the Nativity.
On this day the Virgin gives birth to the Super-essential. To the Unapproachable, earth is providing the grotto. Angels sing and with the shepherds offer up glory. Following a star the Magi are still proceeding. He was born for our salvation, a newborn Child, the pre-eternal God. (Kontakion, Nativity, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Personal Reflection Point: How could you put into words the power of the glory of the Lord shining around the shepherds?