By Carolyn Shields
We know the characters. Mary, Joseph and Jesus are at the center. Then off to the side a little is sometimes a drummer boy who showed up somewhere during history, and of course there’s either cattle or camels. We know there are kings…to represent wealth? And shepherds…to represent the poor?
It seemed so simple growing up, so quaint and picture perfect. But what if there’s more to the characters cast aside than we originally knew? What if understanding who the shepherds were actually changes…everything? Okay, maybe not everything, but a good bit.
So recap. We read in Luke 2:8-20:
Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. 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. 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.” 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.”
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.
Of course maybe in time we draw the correlation between the Shepherd and those that first visited Him. Shepherds often spent their days in solitude, maybe really lonely, in verdant pastures. And maybe a huge part of their being there really was to show that kings and shepherds come together before Him.
But here’s some historical truth to shed some light: shepherds from Bethlehem (which, by the way, literally means ‘house of bread’) were Levitcal shepherds. These shepherds were trained and tasked to prepare the flocks for sacrifices in the temple in Jerusalem. They would bring the sheep into the limestone rock caves for birthing and kept them in a state of ritual purity, often by wrapping the newborn lambs in swaddling clothes to prevent them from thrashing and harming themselves, for they were strictly to be sacrificed without blemish.
So imagine that awestruck wonder that washed over them from the angel’s greeting (that is, once their fear subsided). Imagine them coming across the Lamb of God in one of these exact birthing caves. Imagine them kneeling before our little Prince of Peace and not to the “kings” (which is a whole other topic). The powerful symbolism of this probably struck the core of their hearts more than anyone else because they knew what it all meant.
Guys, they did not come bearing gifts. They did not need directions for they knew their countryside, they knew their caves and where to find Him. They did not let fear stop them.
They showed up and bore witness.