The shepherds were unlikely evangelists. But they were, in a sense, the first earthly proclaimers of the Gospel.
As we continue to ponder the familiar stories of the infancy narratives throughout the Christmas season, we imitate our Blessed Mother, who “kept all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51). The first time we see that phrase in Luke’s Gospel (our indication of where he gathered source material for his infancy account) occurs during the visit of the shepherds to the stable in Bethlehem:
“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. 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.”
– Luke 2:15–20
We would think that Luke, author of the Gospel of the Gentiles, would bring us the Magi’s account. Rather, we instead get the story of these shepherds.
Let’s take some time to think about these shepherds, rather than just gloss over the story because we’ve heard it so many times. First of all, Bethlehem is right outside Jerusalem, so the sheep in the hills around Bethlehem were not just any sheep. Those hills were filled with sheep that were being raised for sacrifice in the Temple.
Why might the shepherds be watching their flocks at night? Yes, to protect them from predators or thieves. But there is another reason why shepherds stay close to their sheep at night: when it is time for new lambs to be born. (As an interesting side note, the lambing season for Awassi ewes, the principle breed of sheep found in Israel is December.)
As the shepherds awaited the birth of new lambs born for sacrifice, they instead received better tidings: that the new Lamb of God, born to die not on the altar of the Temple but on the altar of the Cross, had come.
It is fitting that the Lamb of God was acknowledged first by the shepherds keeping watch over the lambs of sacrifice. As they go to that stable in faith, which is marked by their haste, we can learn something from their example. They don’t just go to observe for themselves and then go back to keeping their flock. They do return to their work, but they go back changed, and they go back announcing what they had seen and heard. In the midst of their work, they glorify God and speak of the good tidings they had received.
The message of the angels—one of glory and good tidings—becomes the message of the shepherds.
We are called to do the same. We go to meet the Christ Child, not in a manger but on an altar. And while we must return to the occupations of our daily lives, we return changed. We enter back into our work, but we do so with the mission to speak of what we have seen and heard.
How has God worked in our lives? When was the last time we shared that message with others? Many people I have taught in RCIA have told me that they came to the Church because of the witness of someone—someone willing to share how God has worked in their lives. Not necessarily preaching, but just a witness of God’s action in their lives.
Do we recognize it? Do we perceive His presence and His actions? And if do, do we then share it with others?
The shepherds were unlikely evangelists. But they were, in a sense, the first earthly proclaimers of the Gospel. They made that message of the angels their message, announcing the good tidings they had seen and heard. Later, the Apostles would assert, “it is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).
This Christmas season, may we make this statement our own. We encounter Christ, but we don’t allow that encounter to be solely for ourselves. We enter into the responsibilities of our vocations, whether that is shepherding, accounting, nursing, or parenting, with the glad tidings of the coming of Christ and then share that with those around us. May we follow the witness of the shepherds and go back to our daily lives, witnessing within our daily work what we have seen and heard and how God has worked.
Image credit: “Adoration of the Shepherds” (detail) | Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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