Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth is so well known that even youngsters can remember its details. It includes a journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem because of a census, no room at an inn, a stable, a manager, swaddling clothes, angels’ song, shepherds, and, of course the baby Jesus, Mary, his mother, and Joseph, his legal father.
While Christmas homilies often concentrate on the Incarnate Son of God and his birth in Bethlehem (“house of bread”), I would to concentrate on the baby’s first visitors, the shepherds.
According to Luke Jesus was born not in his hometown but away from the warm love of an extended family, a stranger in a strange land, not visited by cooing neighbors but by rough shepherds who remind us that Jesus’ ancestor David was also a shepherd and who despite his humble beginnings was destined for great things.
Shepherds were a class of people who were considered unclean by the righteous because their occupation in dealing with the birth and the death of their flocks involved being tainted by blood. They had the “smell of sheep” about them, a phrase made popular by Pope Francis. Right away Luke’s Gospel sets the stage of God’s attentiveness and concern with the poor, the despised, the overlooked, a theme the gospel would revisit time and time again.
Shepherds were also considered irreligious because of their duties made them unable to attend regular ritual observances in the Temple. They had to be with their flocks, keeping them together, leading them to new pastures, and protecting them from predators. That is why it’s so surprising they would leave their flocks and go into Bethlehem in search of a newborn savior who is Messiah and Lord. Should anything happen to the sheep in their absence, they would suffer financially if the flock were their own or be liable if the flock belonged to others. These poor, humble shepherds were the first to risk everything for the sake of this child. After recognizing their Messiah and Lord in this most unlikely of circumstances, they became the first evangelizers, proclaiming to all they met what they had seen. Their lives would never be the same even though they returned to their job. They were transformed into believers, and the final response was praise.
Who are the shepherds in our society today? Immigrants? The people struggling to make ends meet whose jobs make their attendance at Mass pretty much impossible? Menial laborers who are doing jobs that we consider beneath us?
The shepherds teach us one important lesson: Be careful! God has a preferential option to those considered poor, despised and forgotten of the world.