When the Lord Jesus was born of the holy virgin,
The whole universe was filled with light.
The shepherds watched in the fields.
The wise men worshiped and the angels sang.
But Herod was troubled,
For God appeared in the flesh.
He is the Savior of our souls!
– Stikhera on Lord I Call vesperal, Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great
If we ever go to mountainous regions of North India, we would be blessed to see lush green valleys with lots of sheep grazing around and shepherds keeping watch over their flock. Shepherds have a difficult road. Sheep need constant care and attention, and lots of food and water. They also have to be shorn regularly so that their coats so not get too thick. The shearing process is tedious, taking lot of manual labor and patience. The shorn will then has to be sent to the local miles for processing where it is turned into scarves, hats, sweaters, blankets and other textile products. Shepherding is not a high paying job, many shepherds supplement their jobs with farming or some other line of work.
While we may live in a modern society, the art of shadowing has seldom changed throughout the time. During Jesus’ time, shepherding was a job for the poor. It takes vigilance, patience and lots of work. Interestingly, according to Luke, the angels first announce the glad tidings of the birth of the Savior to shepherds keeping watch in the fields. Thus, the Gospel first comes to the poor and lowly shepherds of Israel.
However, shepherds are not always portrayed in the best of light in the Scriptures. The prophet Ezekiel speaks against the shepherds of Israel, who are considered leaders of the people, for not taking care of their flocks:
The word of the Lord came to me, “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, thus says the Lord, ‘You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with wool, you slaughter the fatlings, but do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not healed, the crippled you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them’. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beats. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.” (Ezekiel 34:1-4)
Ezekiel continues as he blames the shepherds for the woes of the poor and the destitute and blames the leaders for neglecting to take care of them. In other words, the shepherds are too busy taking care of themselves rather than taking care of those under their charge.
This theme of shepherding is also developed within the New Testament. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is called the “good Shepherd”, the one who leads His flock to pasture and who protects the flock even if it means sacrificing His own life. As a good Shepherd, Jesus cares for His flock as the shepherds in Ezekiel could not: “I am the good Shepherd. The good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. He who is a hireling and not a shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hireling and cares nothing for the sheep” (John 10:11-13). While there are many shepherds, there is only one good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. One of the shortest, but also most comforting of the Psalms, is Psalms 23 where God Himself is referred to as a shepherd:
The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want; He makes me lie down on green pastures.
He leads me beneath still waters; He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness For His name’s sake
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil;
For Thou are with me;
Thy rod and Thy staff
They comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies
Thou anointest my head with oil.
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
This Psalm is comforting to many people who are in distress, especially during times of sorrow and grief. The Psalmist speaks of the shepherd as leading, restoring and comforting, words which bring solace to people who are hurt.
However, the Scripture also speak of the shepherding in terms of judgement. In Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, the king will separate the sheep from the goats, as a shepherd routinely does in order to keep his flock safe. The reality is that the good Shepherd, the Son of God, will come with ultimate power and authority to execute His divine judgement in the world.
We are not told whether the shepherds in the birth narratives are good or bad, just that they were in their fields keeping watch over their flock. Luke tells us that they are the first ones to hear the good news. This child is the messiah of God who comes to bring peace and justice in the world. He will grow up to be the “good Shepherd” who leads His followers to the Kingdom and who rules with justice and equity, so that the “increase of His government and of Peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over His kingdom to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore” (Isaiah 9:7). The ultimate message is that this Christ child, who is born in Bethlehem, will also bring His peace and justice to the entire world.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner.