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  • Writer's pictureFr. Scott Haynes

Christmas Shepherds in the Little Town of Bethlehem

Fr. Scott A. Haynes

Around the year 1225, St. Francis of Assisi put on a little Christmas play. He and the other Friars built a nativity scene and dressed up like shepherds as they acted out the Christmas story. Centuries later, St. Teresa of Avila often acted the Christmas story with her nuns in the convent each Christmas. Every Christmas-eve St. John of the Cross and the friars held a nativity procession in the monastery.

They took a statue of our Lady, and two of them carried it from cell door to cell door within the monastery, asking for shelter for Mary and her Child. Those within would refuse them entrance and the priests and brothers would join the procession. As this went on, from door to door, with Mary and the Christ Child always being refused, the procession at last made its way through the monastery into the chapel.

Then, the statue of the Christ-child would be laid in the straw of the manger. So immersed were those who took part, so much did they live the story, that it is related that on more than one occasion St. John of the Cross, unable to contain himself for joy that Christ was born, plucked the child from the manger and danced round the chapel, cradling the Divine Babe in his arms.

This Mass of Christ’s Nativity recalls that mysterious moment of Christ’s birth when the angel of the Lord calls the shepherds to greet the Babe of Bethlehem. These poor shepherds are the first to hear Good News of the holy birth—the Messiah is born. The Shepherds were workers with mud on their boots. Not dressed in their Christmas best, but whatever would keep them warm on those lonely nights out in the fields. I bet they smelled. I bet if they sat next to me in Church, I’d try to move a few inches further away.

The first Christmas did not smell like an Evergreen Yankee Candle and gingerbread cookies. The first Christmas smelled like wet sheep and sweat. St. Luke tells us,

"When the angels appeared to shepherds … [they] said to them, 'This will be a sign to you. You will see a baby lying in a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes,'"

A Jewish rabbi and scholar, Rabbi Jason Sobel, tells us that these shepherds weren’t ordinary, everyday shepherds. In fact, they were men of the priestly tribe of Levi and they were shepherding and raising lambs that were to be offered as sacrifices in the temple, noting that these lambs needed to be without blemish. Indeed, these details are confirmed in the Jewish Talmud.

The lambs these shepherds tended required special treatment and observation. According to the laws of the time, the sheep that were used for the offerings had to be a one-year-old male sheep that had been outside for 365 days (one year). When they were ready, they were taken to Jerusalem to be sacrificed on the Sabbath in the Temple. When the lamb's mother was preparing to give birth, she was taken to a special birthplace, or to the only cave designated, to give birth to the sacrificial Iambs. This cave was kept sterile and clean for the arrival of newborn sacrificial Iambs. The newborn lamb was immediately wrapped in clean swaddling cloths to protect them and keep them from blemish and danger.

Swaddling clothes described in the Bible consisted of a cloth tied together by bandage-like strips. When the declaration was made to these Levitical Shepherds that watched their sheep in a special field full of sacrificial lambs, they apparently knew exactly where to go to discover that Baby. There were apparently many places that held mangers, but they comprehended immediately where to go to find the babe… to their cave, where their sacrificial lambs were born and wrapped in “swaddling clothes.”

Rabbi Sobel paints the scene for us. Now it makes so much more sense why Jesus chose to be born in a cave in Bethlehem. From the eyes of these shepherds,

“A baby born in the same place that the Passover lambs [was] born, swaddled like a Passover lamb, [points] to the fact that Messiah was the lamb of God who would take over the sins of the world.”

Looking the birth of Christ, we note that the angel of the Lord did not appear to Caesar Augustus or to King Herod but to poor shepherds. God chose to show up first on the margins. He did not come to the religious leaders, the scribes and pharisees, nor to even the High Priest of the Temple, but to shepherds. The angel says to them,

“Be not afraid, for behold I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people.”

Not just some, but all the people. God announced to the shepherds so that we would believe that Christmas is Good News for all people, truly all the people. God wants us so desperately to know that all people are invited to behold the manger. When God sent his holy angels to call the lowly shepherds to visit the royal Babe of Bethlehem, he did guide them to royal courts, but to a poor and lowly manger.

God’s saving work starts small. At Bethlehem, Jesus comes not with blare of trumpets but in the quiet of the night, entering into the messy places, among broken people. St. John Chrysostom puts it this way,

“And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of Days has become an infant. He who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger.”

God’s saving work starts as tiny and as vulnerable as an infant in a manger. In that carol favorite, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” a song written nearly 150 years ago by Philip Brooks, a native of Philadelphia.

On Christmas Eve in 1865, Brooks visited the Holy Land, worshipped at the Church of the Nativity. Before Mass, he sat in the fields of Beit Sahour, where the shepherds had watched over their flocks that Christmas night. And he was inspired to write this carol for children.

O little town of Bethlehem, How still we see thee lie, Above thy deep and dreamless sleep The silent stars go by; Yet in thy dark streets shineth, The everlasting light. The hopes and fears of all the years Are met in thee tonight.

We know that dark street. Isaiah prophesies, “the people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light.” The shepherds knew the darkness of the starless skies, the darkness of being cast out. We know vulnerability, we know chaos, we know fear this world can bring. We know the long darkness of grief that never seems to lift, the long darkness of disease in our bones that never seems to heal. We know the long darkness of anxiety that chains us.

In the darkness of our own cave, the Baby Jesus enters in. God shows up in our long darkness and lights the way. Somewhere this Christmas, find that place where your hopes and fears are met. Find that stillness, that moment in which you can be in God’s presence and be filled with awe and wonder at this Infant King of Bethlehem who enters into your broken world as vulnerable and fragile as a newborn child. In that moment tonight where “All is calm, all is bright,” let yourself, your imperfect, messy human self, that God loves so much, fall to your knees and behold this Good News—Christ is born!

Nos cum prole pia

Benedicat Virgo Maria!

May the Virgin Mary

Bless us with her holy Child!


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