Why does Luke’s story of the shepherds hold us in such wonder?
Each year, I wait to hear the familiar words from the Gospel of St. Luke that for me are the portal into Christmas Eve. The opening line of the wonderful passage beginning at 2:8 has sent a chill down my spine since junior Sunday school at St. Nicholas Anglican Church in east-end Toronto:
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.”
T.S. Eliot’s bleak 1927 poem, “Journey of the Magi,” may have celebrated the travails of the three wise men on the hard journey from the East to Jesus’ rustic birthplace, but I wonder why no major modern poet has similarly immortalized this close encounter of the humble shepherds with the heavenly host.
Still, I’m thankful to England’s 16th-century Irish-born poet laureate, Nahum Tate, for carolizing the passage in “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night” and to George Frideric Handel for setting its verses to the stately music of The Messiah in 1741 (what better oratorio librettist than a saint?).
There’s also American novelist Margaret Deland’s sentimental versification of 1895 with its feathery clouds and snowy lambs and, latterly, let’s not forget blanket-hugging Linus Van Pelt’s impassioned tribute to this passage in the 1965 film A Charlie Brown Christmas.
The scene on the ancient hillside is vividly cinematic. The enveloping black with the warm Middle Eastern day turned to the chill of night. The flock is somnolent; tangled together beneath the rocks, the snakes preserve their sun-gathered warmth; small mammals are curled up in their dens; songbirds are silent in the thorns, the great wings of the birds are folded. As they pull their shabby robes tighter against the cold, the herdsmen keep a wary eye out for the gleaming amber eyes of predators.
The hush is broken only by their whispering voices and perhaps the chip, chip of flint against metal, followed by smoke and the sudden roar of flames as a fire leaps up. The men pass around a skin of wine and make a simple late-night supper of rough bread and olives under the brittle gaze of the stars in the vast sky. At first they may fail to notice that one star is becoming perceptibly more dominant by the minute.
One is worried about a sick child, another about the rent unpaid on his family’s one-room home in the little white-walled town nearby. How will they get all the shearing done in time to take the wool to the next market? Perhaps they discuss how they’re going to spell each other off so that everyone can get a little sleep on the hard ground.
This mundane world of theirs is about to explode.
“And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.”
But the “mighty dread” that had “seized their troubled mind,” in the words of Tate’s carol, is soon assuaged:
“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”
In the words of Tate’s carol, the annunciating seraph directs the herdsmen to seek an infant “all meanly wrapped in swathing bands and in a manger laid” and is soon joined by Luke’s “shining throng.” According to his gospel:
“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
This passage is a study in contrasts, of dark versus light, of nocturnal quiet broken by a celestial chorus, of careworn men comforted by a preternatural message of hope.
And these words resonate across different religious persuasions. As Ruth, a Jewish friend in university participating in an annual performance of The Messiah, told me many years ago, “These words are a prelude to such a great compelling story.”
On a more theological note, Moyra, a Toronto Roman Catholic, said to me, “This passage brings me a feeling of transcendence—the spirit of God imbuing the natural world with awe and power and communicating with us through this. It makes me feel that God is indwelling everywhere in our world.”
She further commented, “The shepherds felt this through the heavenly hosts but we can feel the presence and voice of God and experience the same awe ourselves in quiet reflection and gratitude as we look about us and listen.”
And this from a Baptist-turned-Unitarian in Hamilton, Ont.: “Whenever I hear this story of the birth of Jesus, it takes me back to being a little girl, sitting in the pew in our neighbourhood Baptist church with my family. I always feel a sense of awe hearing it, imagining those shepherds out in the cold field, hearing the angel. How wonderful that they followed the angel, and their intuition, to find this new hope for their lives.
“One of the first Unitarian services I went to was at Christmas. The ‘sermon’ was on the character of Jesus and how he brought us such an example of the way to live our lives. Hearing this story from so long ago reminds me of the many thousands before me who have listened and been influenced by the shepherds and angel that night.”
A former member of both the United and Presbyterian churches, who is now an evangelical high church Anglican (a member of the Anglican Network in Canada), Joyce sent this comment from her home in Chatham, Ont.:
“The first time I heard The Messiah here in Chatham was the first time I heard those words as a born-again Christian—overwhelming!! What a perfect libretto! Now, when I hear those words, I realize they refer to Christ ‘tabernacling amongst us,’ as Christ was born at the end of the Feast of Tabernacles, 20th October, 6 B.C.”
These verses—“the gracious words that down the ages ring,” as Deland called them—are many centuries old. But the story of these men of lowly caste, chosen, emblematically, to be the first beyond the holy family to adore the newborn king, is always young. I am thrilled by its retelling in song and prose every year.