The shepherds of our Nativity Story lived difficult lives in the social strata of the Ancient Near East, but they are summoned by angels to Bethlehem for a reason.
“Silent Night, Holy Night,
Shepherds quake at the sight.
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heavenly hosts sing alleluia.
Christ, the Savior is born,
Christ, the Savior is born!”
(Silent Night, Verse 2)
“Silent Night,” one of our most beloved and enduring Christmas hymns, was the result of an accident. It was first heard at the Christmas Midnight Mass in the little church of Saint Nicholas in Oberdorf, Upper Austria in 1818. On Christmas Eve, the church’s organ failed. So in a pinch, the young Austrian village priest, Joseph Mohr, hastily composed verses for a simple song while organist Franz Gruber just as hastily set them to music.
They finished just in time to sing it at Midnight Mass accompanied by the soft strumming of a guitar. The congregation was mesmerized. The untitled song became known for its first words, “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.” In 1839, a group of Austrian folk singers performed it for the first time in the United States where it was translated into English. “Silent Night, Holy Night” quickly became synonymous with Christmas. Just like this season itself, the song was written in chaos but became an enduring summons to serenity and the real meaning of Christmas.
As I began to write this post, I was mentally about as far as anyone could be from “All is calm, all is bright,” and “sleeping in heavenly peace.” It’s a challenge to write an uplifting Christmas post from prison. To write ten of them seems an inhuman task, but I have written a Christmas post for each of the ten years that These Stone Walls (the blog, not the place) has been in existence. I wrote most of them in the same chaos and haste in which Father Mohr wrote Silent Night. So if your Christmas spirit needs a spark of life in these contentious times, we’ll link to a few at the end of this one.
In actuality, however, this is my 25th Christmas behind these stone walls (the place, not the blog). I won’t dwell on the first 15 of those long years except to say that they were spent in relentless upheaval in a place of struggle for any semblance of serenity, a truly foreign concept here. I was happy to leave that place, but our emergence from it was a suspenseful story that required an actual miracle. That story, uplifting all by itself, was told in “Pornchai Moontri at a Crossroads Behind These Stone Walls.”
All that has happened since then, the liberation of Pornchai that we described in four parts in September and October this year, could not have happened without the small miracle described in that post. I have been an unwitting shepherd in that story, a fact that comes fully to light only now. To be a shepherd was once a difficult life that has become a vocation. There is a lot of attention on the qualities of the Church’s shepherds right now. Let’s go back to the beginning.
ON THE BIRTH OF THE MESSIAH
Accounts of the infancy and childhood of Jesus appear in only two of the canonical Gospels: Matthew (1:18 – 2:23) and Luke (1:5 – 2:52). The two accounts have only the most basic elements of the story in common: Mary’s virginal conception, and the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Matthew alone contains the story of the Magi, the threat posed by Herod, and the Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. Luke alone has the Angel of the Lord summoning shepherds to witness the newborn King.
Some scholars propose that the Gospel’s Infancy Narratives were added later and were of little interest to the early Church. I take the opposite view. Other accounts in the Apocryphal (meaning “hidden”) Gospels arose out of the first two centuries of the Church. They are not included in the canon of inspired Scripture, but they reveal the Early Church’s fascination with the Birth and childhood of Jesus. Their stories were sometimes embellished, but traditions from the earliest times of the Church cling to some of their accounts.
The Apocryphal Gospel of James, preserved in Greek from no later than the early Second Century, is the sole source of the names of Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna. It is also the only source of the story of the Presentation of Mary in the Temple, and a more detailed account of the fears of suspicion about her pregnancy.
The Arabic Gospel of the Infancy, of unknown origin, is a later compilation of earlier oral traditions none of which can be measured against history. It has an expanded account of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt from the Gospel of Matthew. It also presents a story only vaguely recalled about the Holy Family’s encounter in the desert with Dismas and Gestas, the names given by Tradition to the criminals who were later crucified with Jesus. It’s a story I included in “Dismas, Crucified to the Right: Paradise Lost & Found.”
The History of Joseph the Carpenter, of Egyptian origin in the first few centuries, AD, contains stories of the life of Joseph which are not reflected in any of the Gospel narratives. They include an expanded account of the Flight into Egypt and a popular story about his soul being removed by an angel at the time of his death in the presence of Jesus and Mary. These sources and others reflect the popular fascination of early Christians with the Birth of the Messiah and the legitimacy of the accounts that found their way into the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
THE BIBLICAL SHEPHERDS
Sheep herding was a profession of the common man – or woman – in the ancient world. For the most orthodox Jews in the time of Jesus, it was a position with low social rank and often disdained. It has always plagued the faithful that some religious leaders can become oblivious to the tenets of their own faith. Shepherds were looked down upon even as God Himself was seen as the Shepherd of Israel (Genesis 49:24 and Psalm 80:2). The most popular Scriptural identification of God as shepherd is in Psalm 23:
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. In verdant pastures He gives me repose. Beside restful waters He leads me. He restores my soul.” (Ps. 23: 1-2)
There are 123 references to shepherds in Sacred Scripture, beginning with one of the most ancient accounts, the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis (Chapter 4). Scripture depicts an age-old tension between shepherds and those who till the land. Each regarded the other as antagonistic to his interests. Clearing land for farming in the Ancient Near East meant that shepherds had to travel far and wide to find land suitable for grazing. In contrast, the pasturing of flocks damaged both land and crops.
With severe limits in both land and water, this forced shepherds into a nomadic life, and an economic rivalry with agriculture. Sheep had to be led from pasture to pasture as changing seasons required migration over vast distances. Shepherds had to find not only suitable and available grazing, but a water supply. Shepherds had to shelter their flocks in inclement weather and protect them from wild beasts and disgruntled farmers. Scripture is filled with wolf and sheep allegories.
The Prophet Amos was a shepherd, but some Prophetic voices present shepherds as unfaithful (Ezekiel 34:2-10), as simple-minded (Jeremiah 10:21), as letting their flocks scatter (Jeremiah 23:1-2), as leading people astray (Jeremiah 50:6), as lacking grace or understanding (Isaiah 56:1lff).
Despite the fact that shepherds were socially frowned upon, God showed favor to many shepherds throughout Scripture, calling them to heroic and pivotal missions. The story of Cain and Abel in Genesis (4:2 and following) has Cain tilling the earth while Abel is a sheepherder, aka, shepherd. When it came time to offer their gifts in sacrifice, Abel’s gift was found to be more pleasing to God resulting in humanity’s first homicide. Many generations later, Jacob, grandson of Abraham, described in a plea to Laban his life as a shepherd.
“It was like this with me: by day the heat consumed me, and the cold by night, and my sheep fled from my eyes.” (Genesis 31:40)
Joseph, the main focus of Genesis chapters 37 to 50, was the youngest of his brothers and a shepherd. Jealous of their father’s favoritism toward him, his brothers sold him to slave traders who took him to Egypt. He later assured their salvation, saving their lives in a time of famine in Israel.
In Egypt, Jews came to be identified as nomadic shepherds and shepherding came to be seen by the Egyptians as an abominable life (Genesis 43:32). Moses, called by God to receive the Covenant, was first a shepherd. Saint Luke’s account of the shepherds called to Bethlehem has an echo of Moses’ encounter with God on Mount Sinai as he received the Commandments.
“And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night And an Angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear” (Luke 2:8-9)
COME TO BETHLEHEM
Many generations later still after Moses, David, a shepherd, boasted of having killed lions with his bare hands when they attacked his father’s flocks. The Birth narrative in the Gospel of Luke also has an echo of King David’s humble origin as a shepherd (1 Samuel 16:1-23). St Luke presents an image of the call of the Shepherds by an Angel of the Lord as being privileged with a vision of King David’s successor. It is presented in language highly reminiscent of a king descended from David.
“Be not afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you. You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Then suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly hosts saying, ‘Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth peace to men with whom he is pleased.”’ (Luke 2 10-14)
Saint Luke’s Gospel account suggests that Mary was herself the source of this information. When the shepherds came to Bethlehem that night and found her with Joseph and the Christ-child just as the angel had said, Mary heard the account of their encounter in the darkness, “But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).
The Christmas Proclamation traditionally proclaimed from the Roman Martyrology on the Vigil of Christmas begins with creation and connects the birth of the Lord with the major events of both sacred and secular history. The Proclamation reveals something of crucial importance for our time.
Abraham, our Father in Faith, came out of Ur of the Chaldees to encounter God who forged a covenant with Him in the 21 Century before the Birth of Christ. We now live in the 21st Century since His birth. This places Christ the King at the very center of Salvation History from our perspective. Christ now stands equidistant in time between God’s covenant with Abraham and our present.
We must come to understand the cosmic importance of the time in which we live and the battle for souls being waged here. We must hope and pray that the shepherds of our time come to understand that as well, and live – not just speak, but live – faithfully and courageously, the Gospel we profess.
Proclamation of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ:
THE TWENTY-FIFTH DAY OF DECEMBER when ages beyond number had run their course from the creation of the world, when God in the beginning created heaven and earth, and formed man in his own likeness; when century upon century had passed since the Almighty set His bow in the clouds after the great flood as a sign of covenant and peace; in the twenty-first century since Abraham, our Father in Faith, came out of Ur of the Chaldees; in the thirteenth century since the people of Israel were led by Moses in the exodus from Egypt; around the thousandth year since David was anointed king; in the sixty-fifth week of the prophecy of Daniel; in the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad; in the year seven hundred and fifty-two since the foundation of the city of Rome; in the forty-second year in the reign of Caesar Octavian Augustus, the whole world being at peace, Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the Eternal Father, desiring to consecrate the world by His most loving presence, was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and when nine months had passed since His conception, was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem of Judah, and was made man: the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.
Note from Father Gordon MacRae: There are plenty of voices in this secular culture trying to suppress the real meaning of Christmas. Please share this post with others and on social media. You may also like these other Christmas posts composed in chaos behind These Stone Walls:
- Silent Night and the Dawn of Redeeming Grace
- Christmas in the Valley, and on the High Places
- Christmas in the Midst of All that Really Matters
- Upon a Midnight not so Clear, Some Wise Men from the East Appear