Why “To Shepherds”?

A Christmas Homily

You’ve just heard that there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

Don’t let this mystery pass by unconsidered. The announcement of Our Lord’s birth doesn’t go first to the elites, the academics, the media, or the political class. Even the socially conscious, those working to aid the oppressed, and those striving for peace and justice—these folks may be wise and prudent in worldly affairs. But they often consider the wisdom of God to be foolish. If we possessed true wisdom, we would not be easily undone; nor would we think that Christmas is simply a children’s tale. True wisdom is from God and is God Himself. And with that wisdom, we can

understand that it was possible for flesh to be taken on by God without his being changed into flesh; … that he took to himself what he was not, while remaining what he was; and that he came to us [as a human] without ever departing from the Father; and that he continued to be what he is, while appearing to us as what we are; and that his divine power was confined in the body of an infant without being withdrawn from the whole mass of the universe. (St Augustine)

But this wisdom is too much for the elites, the educated, the philosophers, the talking heads, and the influencers. So, when word goes out, when the birth is made public, those who treated the royal family dishonorably are not alerted. They are not visited by angels.

For “the Son of God did not choose for his mother a rich or wealthy woman, but that blessed Virgin, whose soul was adorned with virtues…[who] had observed chastity in a way that was above all human nature. [S]he conceived Christ the Lord in her womb.” (St John Chrysostom) And so the woman who lived the discipline, the routine, of prayer and fasting; the woman who did not give into her impulses, and who did not think it her right to do as she wanted—this woman whom most overlooked and many despised and some ridiculed—she gave birth in the shabbiest place; in a stable, surrounded by farm animals.

And so “the Lord searched not for colleges filled with crowds of the wise, but a simple people who will not embellish or distort what they hear.” (St Ambrose) The angels do not desire the ambitious but humility; not the sophisticated but simplicity.

Why? Because anyone can marvel at the birth of a child. But God in our flesh is much more easily grasped by simple women and men—people of the earth that marvel in God’s creation and who prefer to take God at His Word. For faith invites us to see lying in the manger God’s material and embodied compassion. And so, we are invited to set aside our smarts and self-proclaimed wisdom, and instead to embrace “this Word that is come to pass” in the stable of Bethlehem.

Later, the elites will hear the Christmas news. And if we are willing to set aside our agenda of how we think Jesus ought to be and act, we will see Jesus for who He truly is—the Savior of the cosmos, God’s peace on earth, His goodwill toward all, and “the repairer of the breach, the restorer of paths to dwell in.” So the first announcement goes to others.

Who hears the news first? Not the downtrodden, the homeless, the forgotten, and the ignored. These folks live simply by necessity. And they can certainly identify with Mary and Joseph since they are also marginalized. But no angels visit them. Instead, the news first goes to “shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.”

Why shepherds? Why leave the little town of Bethlehem and go into the country to night-workers? Why do angels single out these men and boys?

Because these night-watching shepherds point to those apostles and disciples who will be instructed by Christ, transformed by His Father, and given true wisdom by the Spirit. Exercising this spiritual wisdom, true shepherds proclaim not their truth, not a truth, but Truth Himself. And not just proclaim, but bestow. And not just bestow, but even plant Truth into our hearts so that we might believe against our notions of how the world ought to be, against our construct of how God ought to act, and against our impulse of how we ought to live.

So Christ reveals Himself to shepherds to show us that He is the Good Shepherd who seeks the lost, accompanies the weary, and comforts the lonely.

Christ reveals Himself to night-shepherds to urge us to be vigilant and diligent in seeking and follow Our Lord’s Word.

Christ reveals Himself to shepherds to teach us that the preaching of the illiterate and unschooled does us more good that the platitudes of the privileged.

And Christ reveals Himself to shepherds to demonstrate that He will appoint pastors and bishops—spiritual shepherds—who will oversee the flock and feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. (Acts 20.28)

And yet, when these shepherds hear the angels, they hesitate. Why? Perhaps we should say this to these shepherds, “Now listen, shepherds: You have heard what the angel said—the Lord Jesus Christ is born in your flesh and mine. He comes as a vulnerable Baby so that you can embrace Him. He comes as a Child so that you might mature into the full image and likeness of God. He comes wrapped in swaddling cloths so that your burial shroud might be unwound. He comes in a manger so that you might feed on Him at the altar. He comes on earth so that you might lift up your hearts to heaven. He comes in a stable, so that you might gain entrance into the heavenly mansions.

“So why do you delay? Why do you falter? Why do you dither and vacillate? You have been treated like VIPs – you are invited to worship Christ the King. You are permitted to see what only Mary and Joseph and some animals have seen. Angels have given you a golden invitation. The best song—a song repeated every week for thousands of years—that song has been first sung into your ears.

“Yet you stand still. Are you afraid that the Good Shepherd will not protect your sheep? Are you unsure of the way to the Way of Life? Do you fear that this might be some dream? In this way, you remind us of the Apostles 30 years later. Do you need to hear the angel say, “Why do you stand here gazing up into heaven?”

“Do not delay. Do not hesitate. Do not prevaricate. Do not overthink. Instead, do what we cannot do. Make haste to see the Child whom the angels proclaim. For then we will be told and reminded by other shepherds that Christ, the living Bread from heaven, has been laid not in a feedbox so that we, this night, might consume and be consumed by Love Himself.”

And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this Word which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.