On Shepherds & Advent
Begin by reading Luke 2:1-20
Our English word Advent comes from the Latin ‘adventus’ meaning ‘coming’ which itself is a translation of the Greek ‘parousia’ – a word that is often used to refer to Jesus’ Second Coming. Advent is the beginning of the Church year in the Western Church (both Catholic and Protestant) and begins on the 4th Sunday before December 25th. At one time it was a period of lengthy fasting similar to Lent although this emphasis has largely disappeared now.
The Season of Advent is all about the coming of Christ and anticipates this from two very different perspectives:
- The ancient longing for a messiah
- being alert for Christ’s return
Before getting into the story it is perhaps worth taking a moment to reflect how God here sets in motion a chain of events, that starts with the Emperor Augustus in Rome, to achieve his purposes and Old Testament fulfil prophecy. The most powerful man in the known world was merely an actor scripted to point to events that were taking place in the insignificant (to human eyes at least) backwater of Bethlehem in Judea. Bethlehem was a three day (90 miles) journey from Nazareth and, as the city of David, was the place Joseph and Mary were required to go to register for the census.
The Jewish historian Josephus does record that a census took place during Quirinius’ governorship but that this was after the death of Herod the Great. This one was before that. In all probability Mary was also of the house of David and we know from another census during this period that girls over 12 years of age were also required to register and pay a poll tax so it is possible that Mary was required to register in her own right.
As an aside the observant will have noticed that the genealogies of Matthew and Luke are very different. One solution, that had support in the early church, was that the names in Luke’s gospel actually referred to the genealogy of Mary not Joseph. That raises another interesting question. Did Luke know Mary and include her personal recollections in his gospel. Mary certainly has prominence in these passages and the fact that we find here simple shepherds and details about her family, that are not recorded in the other gospels, adds further weight to this idea.
The first visitors that Matthew mentions in his gospel are the Magi sometime after the event. However, according to Luke it was the shepherds who were the first to greet the infant Jesus. Shepherds did not have a very good reputation at the time. In the Talmud it was written that shepherds were not allowed in the courts to be witnesses since they grazed their flocks on other people’s lands and were (like the tax collectors) the archetypal sinners. In fact the Talmud instructs that no help should be given to heathens or to shepherds. Shepherds were despised because they were unable to attend the temple services and keep the rituals and ceremonial laws as their flocks kept them from practicing their religion.
However, it was to Bethlehem that the prophet Samuel came in search of a king for Israel. Jesse’s youngest son David had to be summoned from keeping the sheep (1 Samuel 17). At the time we are talking about the sheep for the temple sacrifices were kept in the fields around Bethlehem all year round. It is fair to say that, in the Bible, shepherds were generally viewed much more favourably than in the culture at the time. Of all the gospel writers Luke is the most aware of the plight of the poor and of people on the margins of society who are looked down upon by the respectable. I am reminded of a modern version of the nativity story where it is homeless people who are led to visit the Christ-child. Perhaps that is meant to challenge our values and basic assumptions?
The Shepherds responded to:
- Divine Revelation
- Personal Invitation
Try to imagine just for a moment what it would have been like to have been one of those shepherds. They were unprepared, out in the fields alone keeping watch over their flocks in the darkness and guarding against thieves and predators. This was a night just like any other night, there was nothing special or unusual about it.
In a moment, that all changes! The angel was probably Gabriel (Luke 1:11-20) who suddenly appears among them but what would have really got their attention was the ‘Glory of The Lord (shining) around them’. In other Old Testament passages this was manifested as a bright light and you can imagine it suddenly piercing and dispelling the darkness around them. No wonder they were afraid. Fear is a natural response to this situation. Zechariah reacted in the same way (Luke 1:12). It is an awesome thing for us to be in the presence of God with all our imperfections exposed and nowhere to hide.
The Angel’s first words, though, were of reassurance, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people.’ (v.10). He goes on to tell them that on this day in the small town nearby had been born someone who would be for them ‘a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.’ (v11). Each of those titles has its own significance.
They are then told that their sign would be ‘a baby wrapped in cloths, and lying in a manger (a feeding trough, v12)’. I don’t know about you but if I was looking for a sign this probably would not be in my top ten. Once again God is turning our values upside down and teaching us to see with our hearts rather than our reason.
And then, as a final confirmation and endorsement they see around them ‘a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying , 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.’
We are not told how long this went on for but, after the Angel, God’s Glory and the Heavenly Host had departed and they had come back down to earth in a very literal sense, fear and awe turned to curiosity as they began to talk among themselves about what had just happened and they decided to go straight to Bethlehem, ‘making haste’ to see for themselves the things that they had been told about.
I would love to know how they introduced themselves to Mary and Joseph. After their glimpse of heaven in the fields, what they found there must have seemed a great contrast, even though they had been forewarned. They didn’t try to reason it out (how could a King be born in such humble circumstances) but simply made known what they had been told, saw the ‘sign’ and then departed ‘glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.’ (v20). In what ways do we share our joy with others during this season?
All we are told is that ‘Mary treasured these things, pondering them in her heart.’ (v19). Of all the characters in the Advent story Mary is the most unfazed (and directly affected) by all the unusual events and revelations that occur. When Gabriel first came to her in Luke 1:29 we learn that ‘she was greatly troubled at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this might be’ and there is a similar statement in 2:51. Perhaps we can learn something from Mary here as we ourselves read the bible account. Understanding deepens as we meditate and ponder the significance of the words. You should allow them to take root in your heart and not rush to form conclusions about what God is doing in your life. He may have some surprises for you.
There are other things here that I would like to know. How did this experience change the shepherds and what happened to them in the years afterwards? What about the sheep who were left untended? These are all secondary to the main account but it would be still nice to know. At one level the Lord himself is our shepherd (Psalm 23) and prominent individuals in the bible such as Moses, Jacob and of course David were all literally shepherds. We are told that the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11). Perhaps it is fitting after all that it was humble shepherds who were chosen to greet the new born Christ and welcome him into the world.
I began by comparing Advent and Lent and it is important to appreciate that they are very different from each other:
- Advent is about hope not repentance, it is a looking forward
- Whereas Lent is meant to be a spring cleaning of our hearts and a reminder of something that has already taken place
Advent is about getting your heart ready to welcome the arrival of a special guest. It is all about hopeful anticipation and expectant waiting, faithfulness being rewarded
It is about God breaking into our ordinary lives to do something wonderful. In that sense perhaps we are not so very different from the Shepherds after all.
All Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible.