Sunday, December 25, 2016

While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks

One of the features of the traditional Christmas story is the how an "angel of the Lord" came and announced to the shepherds the "good news of great joy which will come to all 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 babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger."

This story appears in the second chapter of the Gospel according to Luke in in the New Testament of the Bible. Because of our tendency to take all this for granted I thought it might be interesting to share a couple features of the story that you might not be aware of, to picture it better.

First off, the author Luke was a physician, so his version of the Christ story is peppered with many details not found elsewhere. He was writing a historical account, and for this reason Chapter 2 begins with a decree by Caesar Augustus, which did actually occur in history, requiring that census be taken. Mary and Joseph, despite her being nine months pregnant, had to leave Nazareth and make their way to Bethlehem because the manner in which King Herod carried out the census for Israel. Each person was to be registered in their own city.

What's interesting is that Bethlehem wasn't just any city. The city there had tremendous historical significance. According to Alfred Edersheim in The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah:

That the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem was a settled conviction. Equally so was the belief, that He was to be revealed from Migdal Eder, 'the tower of the flock.' This Migdal Eder was not the watchtower for the ordinary flocks which pastured on the barren sheepground beyond Bethlehem, but lay close to the town, on the road to Jerusalem. A passage in the Mishnah leads to the conclusion that the flocks which pastured there were destined for Temple-sacrifices and, accordingly, that the shepherds, who watched over them, were not ordinary shepherds. The latter were under the ban of Rabbinism, on account of their necessary isolation from religious ordinances, and their manner of life, which rendered strict legal observance unlikely, if not absolutely impossible. The same Mishnic passage also leads us to infer, that these flocks lay out all the year round, since they are spoken of as in the fields thirty days before the Passover - that is, in the month of February, when in Palestine the average rainfall is nearly greatest. Thus, Jewish tradition in some dim manner apprehended the first revelation of the Messiah from that Migdal Eder, where shepherds watched the Temple-flocks all the year round. Of the deep symbolic significance of such a coincidence, it is needless to speak.

Modern day shepherd in Romania.*
So these were not ordinary shepherds  watching just any old flocks of sheep. These were shepherds who took care of the flocks that were raised for temple sacrifices for the purpose of making peace with God.

And what does the angel of the Lord say? "This will be a sign for you: a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger."

So the story, for the shepherds, begins with a treasure hunt! These guys are not given much to go on and must run down into town and start a search. Fortunately, Bethlehem was not the size of New York City -- or Jerusalem -- and they were successful. For all I know there was only one inn, and because of the census it was full.

The marvels here are two-fold. The presence of the shepherds who raised sacrificial sheep for the Temple were the first to recognize the future One who would become a sacrificial lamb for humanity. And two, the humility of this birth. If this was the King of Kings, why was the babe born in a cattle stall? You'd think a Messiah would be born in a palace... but no.

The marvel of the story is that God became one of us. Helpless, human, common. When the shepherds found the newborn babe, they told Mary what the angel had said and that after the angel gave the instructions, a whole host of angels appeared. All heaven must have been leaning over the rim of that town to see this amazing event.

These were my thoughts last night as I considered this day and its meaning.

Photo credit: friend of Darwinek. Used with permission.

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