The shepherds were considered a lowly people. It is Luke’s theme that the lowly are singled out as recipients of God’s blessings and favors.
By F. K. Bartels
29 December 2009
“Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields” – St. Luke
We may be tillers of the soil whose labors are deeply inscribed upon our hands, or we may reside in office buildings in the performance of our work, but it is the humble who receive God’s blessings. It is they who seek, for it is the little ones whose hearts are open to seeking. It is those living in the fields of humility who keep watch. They do not view themselves as scholarly; nor are they rationalists who so easily depart from the Faith; nor are they materialists preoccupied with gathering worldly objects. Rather, they are a simple people: quiet, ever-listening, relying on God for all things. In their humility they have found wisdom, and, in wisdom, they perceive reality clearly, as it is. Acutely aware that they are dust of the earth, that God is the giver of life and immortality, they wait in fields of silent anticipation and yearning.
“ . . . and keeping the night watch over their flock” (2:8).
The shepherds keep the night watch in the silence of their hearts; for there is a peaceful stillness within that comes from God. They are careful to cultivate God’s whisper, distancing themselves from worldly noise and distractions. They are not avid socializers nor fervent intellectuals, nor are their evenings squandered in sensual captivity. Rather, they listen for God under a canopy of muted stars; it is in the night they wait; in stillness and quiet they hear; in emptiness they know. They keep the night watch in waiting for the rise of the Son’s glory.
“The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (2:9-10).
In their simple humility, in an open field among the silence of night, an angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds, and the “glory of the Lord shone around them”. The poor, humble, uneducated shepherds who so often warmed themselves at fireside, who were looked upon as an insignificant element of society, received the “good news of great joy”.
“For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (2:11-12).
Tomorrow a Savior will again be born for “you”. The Father’s most sublime gift: a Christ Child comes again for “you”. God left his eternal home and entered into his creation where most would not recognize him; where he would live in humble poverty; where he would be loved by few and despised by many; where he would give his life in Love beyond human understanding. This Christ did for the shepherds, the lowly, the poor and humble. This he did for those who seek. This Jesus did for “you” who silently wait in distant fields.
“And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (2:13-14).
Peace. How we so desire it! How our hearts yearn for it. And how it is so misunderstood. Peace is not simply the absence of war. Peace is not the absence of some “thing”. Nor is peace the possession of any worldly “thing”. Financial security or prestige or power will not bring it; it cannot be found in diamonds nor gold, nor even in bodily health. So many constantly labor in order to obtain that “thing” of which they believe is their heart’s desire. Yet, on obtaining whatever it is they sought, peace remains illusive. The treasure obtained by the sweat of the brow is, once opened, found empty. How difficult such a lesson is to grasp. “If only you had known what would bring you peace” (Lk. 19:42). Peace is found by those shepherds living in an empty field; listening in humility; seeking patiently; watchful in the night. Peace will be given to those “on whom” God’s “favor rests”.
“When the angels went away from them to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us. So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger” (2:15-16).
The shepherds are very different from the norm of society. They do not merely listen to the Word and then go on busily about their activities, ignoring what they’ve heard; nor do they postpone their seeking until another day. They are unburdened by the chains of disordered demands, pleasures and ambitions. Upon the angels’ departure to heaven, they announce with readiness and anticipation: “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem, to see this thing that has taken place”. Their decision is immediate and acted upon with urgency. The hope of their heart is triggered, which energizes, motivates and moves. They “went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger”. Precisely as God had revealed, there in Bethlehem was born a Savior: the Father’s only Son had arrived. The watch of night was transformed into peace and joy in the Christ Child’s presence. The Dawn From On-High had risen on the shepherds’ humble field.
“When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child. All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds. And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them” (2:17-20).
Let us watch this night, as the shepherds, in a silent and humble field; for the Christ Child comes. He will again lay himself in the manger of our heart. In glory he will arrive, setting us afire with hope, joy and peace. Let us contemplate the Child, as if we were one of those shepherds on that very night: In Christ’s bright, infant eyes we see the reflection of the eternal; as we gaze into their depths we see something no man can describe: The “I Am” beyond the ages. There is an unfathomable Trinitarian love in those eyes: deeper than the ocean, larger than the universe; a fiery love beyond human understanding. It reaches out. Love calls in the silent night.
The Son of the Living God, begotten of the Father before the dawn of time, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger! Imagine the Child’s breath: So sweet, so pure, so soft; yet it is an ageless breath. It is the Father’s created air, passed from his precious Son’s lungs as the breath of the Christ Child; it is the air we breathe. That holy and sanctified air shared by God Incarnate as true Man is still in the world. We have all drawn some portion of it.
Mary and Joseph bend over the manger: The Christ Child’s tiny hand closes on the Virgin Mary’s finger; the Son of the living God entrusts himself to the care of his Mother. His eyes meet hers. There are tears, smiles, burning joy – peace. “My Son,” whispers the Mother of God. Joseph places his fatherly and obedient hand on Mary’s shoulder. The shepherds look on in silence. “And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart”. Our Mother reflects these things back upon us, as the moon reflects the sun’s light. Humble shepherds living in the fields absorb such light; it warms their hearts.
This Christmas, let us cultivate that humble field in our own heart. Let us, as shepherds, be ready. Let us embrace hope, and thus become energized, motivated and moved. Let us keep watch this night. If we do not yet live in tranquil, fertile fields, let us go there; for Christ comes. Listen in the silence of night; look to the heavens for the angel of the Lord; stand in the glory which even at this moment shines down from above. Then, as shepherds, we too shall say: “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” We will go “in haste” and find “Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger”.
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Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.