Advent, Week 3
Celebration of the Shepherds
Well, just about nothing!
This week I struggled when I considered what to write for the Candle of Joy, or Shepherds!
I kept thinking of the shepherds out in the field with their sheep, at night.
I remembered how they were surprised by a visit from angels who gave them the news of a special birth, and how they were given instructions as to how they might find the little family located in a stable with animals that night.
One IDEA kept recurring to me as I quietly thought about this week’s activities surrounding the Birth of Jesus in the manger in Bethlehem. It came to me that the one thread connecting EVERY character in this story is that each person was required to make an unexpected, unplanned, trip from one place to another. Every single one! And, I felt like there is a somber loneliness that underlies this miraculous story – everyone had to give up something that was familiar and travel to an unfamiliar place to do unfamiliar things, with unfamiliar people.
Travel – Journey – Go – Trip – Excursion – Passage – Flight
Mary and Joseph had to leave their home at a time when no pregnant woman would choose to be going anywhere on a trip – especially by foot and by donkey. Yet, the trip was mandated by the law and they had no choice but to go.
When I was nineteen, I gave birth to my first child. Eighteen months later, the second daughter was born. At age twenty-five, our third daughter was born. For all of those births, I was living in a comfortable home with my husband. I had a local doctor, and when the time came, he delivered our daughters in our local hospital just 2 miles from our home. And, I remember how frightening it was – every time – when the pains of labor were intense enough that I was bent over double, unable to even stand up straight and I knew it was time to leave for the hospital and give birth. OH, how did young Mary bear the long days of rugged travels when her body was heavy with her baby boy? How did she straddle the back of a donkey and ride those many miles with her bones and her muscles aching and cramping? How did Joseph bear it to see her pain during the long journey to Bethlehem?
Oh, Mary! My heart is sad when I think that you did not even have a warm bed or the comfort of your family or friends that night. Mary, you knew you were carrying God in your womb, but how you must have wondered WHY you had to be so far from h home, so lonely, and in such a strange place as a barn that night.
I know that in art through the ages, in songs, and now, in contemporary depictions of the Nativity, we see Angels, the Holy Family, Shepherds, and Three Kings all there together with the animals. Yet, when I read the scriptures that record this event, what we see in the depictions of it are not at all accurate. The nostalgic Christmas card scene has been pieced together over the years into a fantasy world that never existed in that way. The centuries of lore have put together a very odd mixture of Christian history mingled with pagan practices, ideas, superstitions, and myths. And, then add to this mixture, the cultural and racial confusion that exists to add to the fantasy.
One evening in October 1997, I heard a whisper, “Come away, my beloved!” I turned, walked towards Him that night, changed the course of my life forever. Oh, but that is not all. You see, as I was walking to meet Jesus, I so clearly heard the voice of another man, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” I knew I was laying down my life,as I had known it, and I stepped into a new one.
The shepherd’s in the fields near Bethlehem traveled that night to find the infant who would one day be known as “The Good Shepherd.” We all turn around when the call comes, and we travel to the place where we have been called to be
There were only a very few worshippers around the manger in Bethlehem – just a handful of shepherds. Oh, yes, the Three Kings were on the way, most likely, but it would be quite a long time before they traveled the distance and bowed before the little boy.
Luke 2:7 sets the scene:
“[Mary] gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
When I look at this account of the birth, I can feel the loneliness of a woman as she takes her newborn child and wraps him in clothes and places him on the straw. No room for them anywhere, except for a barn.
“The very nature of shepherds’ work kept them from entering into the mainstream of Israel’s society. They couldn’t maintain the ceremonial washings and observe all the religious festivals and feasts, yet these shepherds, just a few miles from Jerusalem, were undoubtedly caring for sheep that someday would be used as sacrifices in the temple. How fitting it is that they were the first to know of the Lamb of God!
More significant, they came to see Him the night he was born. No one else did. Though the shepherds went back and told everyone what they had seen and heard, and though “all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds” (v. 18), not one other person came to see firsthand.” (John MacArthur)
We are left to wonder, when we search the historical, scripture accounts – about the shepherds. We don’t how they knew where to go. I imagine they just came into Bethlehem, and began walking about, asking, “Do you know where a baby has been born tonight?” The important thing for us to know is that they came! They came because angels had visited them while they were taking care of their flocks at night. They had a visit from God, and they left their fields and followed the direction of the angels to go find the baby. The shepherds became, that night, the first Christian evangelists. They went out from the manger, and they told others what they had found.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged on April 9, 1945, for his part in the conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler. and, here, he throws down the gauntlet for all people who choose to follow the path of the Messiah.
Here is the context of his most famous quote:
The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call. (The Cost of Discipleship, 99)
Well, now that I have talked my way through the meaning of the shepherds, I can better understand Psalm 28. (NIV) and, here is where I find the connection between “joy” and the journey of the shepherds. I wish you a joyous journey to the Christ Child tonight, too.
“My heart leaps for joy,
and with my song I praise him.
8 The Lord is the strength of his people,
a fortress of salvation for his anointed one.
9 Save your people and bless your inheritance;
be their shepherd and carry them forever.”
Lynda McKinney Lambert. December 2014. Copyright. All Rights Reserved.