Above all else, be humble
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “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 Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
The last thing you wanted, if you were a father in Biblical times in those parts of the world that included Nazareth and Bethlehem and Jerusalem, was your daughter bringing home a shepherd to meet the family.
There’s no way to put it kindly: Shepherds were the unclean outcasts from society.
There really is no equivalent today. A slaughterhouse worker or a latrine cleaner or a sewer worker today can all “clean up real good,” to use a contemporary phrase. Hot water and soap make up for a multitude of dirty jobs.
But in Biblical Judea and Galilee, it was a different story. Shepherds, looking after flocks of sheep outside city or village walls, had no way of observing the required ritual washings and other hygiene demands of Judaism; they lived in the fields with their charges and so were not only ritually unclean, but almost certainly odiferous even by the standards of the time. They were cut off from most human contact and lived a nomadic life, moving flocks from one arid grassland to the next.
And yet, in this deeply stratified society of Biblical Judea, in which shepherds were at the very bottom of the social pile, who was it the angels told of the arrival of the Messiah? The Gospel of Luke tells us Jesus’s birth was announced by the angels to shepherds in their fields.
Filthy and shunned, shepherds were entrusted with witnessing the infant Jesus and then spreading the word of the arrival of the long-prophesied Emmanuel (God with us). The magi also came to visit and pay tribute, but they were led by their divination of the heavens. No angel came to them.
What must Joseph have feared as this ripe, motley crew of shepherds arrived at the stable where his wife had just given birth? What must Mary have thought of these unclean men coming to see her newborn son?
Whether you believe Luke’s birth narrative to be literal or metaphorical, the angels’ appearance to the shepherds is fundamental to the story of Jesus’s life and death. The Gospel of Luke is believed by scholars to have been written within the lifetime of people who knew Jesus, probably about 60 AD, and so there is an undeniable authenticity to his story.
While the nativity story may be largely metaphor and myth, the symbolism of the Annunciation is true to the core beliefs of the Disciples and earliest Christians: That the Jesus they knew and followed came for the poor, not for the rich; for those with the least power, not for those who ruled. Jesus was there for the hungry, the outcast, the undesirable.
This message resonates today in the remarkable, unconventional attitudes of Pope Francis, who demonstrates a hands-on affinity for the poor, hungry and marginalized.
Francis has raised the job of Vatican “almoner” — a centuries-old job of handing out alms to the poor — from a position that was largely symbolic, given as a sinecure to an aging Vatican official, to one that is literally hands-on, telling the archbishop he appointed to “Sell your desk. You don’t need it. Go and look for the poor.” Get your hands dirty, Francis has told his priests (and bishops): Go to be with those who need you.
This is the message of the birth that Christians celebrate tonight and tomorrow: That dirt and stable-muck and a not-very-rigid attitude toward the “rules” of religion and society didn’t matter. Jesus’s birth was representative of what as a grown man he would ask of those who followed him: Feed the hungry, clothe the poor, shelter the homeless.
That message is not unique to Christianity: All faiths extol the critical importance, the holiness, of helping the poor and the troubled. When the days are shortest and the nights are coldest, when the fields are frozen and every living thing is seeking warmth in homes or burrows or dens, it is then that we who are fortunate, we who are warm and full and content, are commanded to seek out the shepherds of our time and offer them comfort.
Christmas is a celebration of our blessings and gifts, the greatest of which, Christians believe, was the gift from God of his only Son. But regardless of our faith or lack of it; regardless of who or what we celebrate; regardless of whether we believe in Jesus’s divinity, the child who was welcomed into the world by shepherds and is still known millennia later as the Good Shepherd, left behind a call for humbleness.
Indifferent to our status and wealth or the lack of it, uncaring of who or how we worship, the ancient blessing sends us out on a cold winter’s night from our homes, churches, temples and mosques: “Go your way in peace. Hold fast to that which is good. Render to no one evil for evil. Support the weak. Help and cheer the sick. Honour all people. Love and serve the Lord.”
From all of us at The Spectator, to all of you: We wish you a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, a Joyous New Year. (Source: Hamilton Spectator)