-- Thomas Cole, "Angels appearing to the shepherds," oil on canvas, 1833-4, Chrysler Museum, Norfolk
Why did God pick the shepherds, to whom the angels sang?
The birth of Jesus Christ is the central, most important moment of all time and space.
If the Gospel is true at all, this importance must be right. God -- the God Who created all creation and continues to make everything exist -- this same God the Creator actually becomes one of His creatures. The Second Person of the Trinity -- the Son of God the Father -- actually joins Himself to human nature. In the Person of Jesus Christ, the Creator is brought into physical communion with His creation, and divinity is brought into communion with humanity.
Not only is the Incarnation significant: even more significant is the fact that in Christ, the Creator became creature.
Because of this one central moment, all creation -- the entire universe -- can become divinized. And because of what this Person, Jesus Christ, will do, all mankind -- despite its cooperation with the demon-possession of sin and its deliberate self-infection of death -- all humanity can be cleansed of death and restored back into the royal stewardship of the earth and sky.
So you see, there can be no other moment more important than the Nativity.
Even if there were other intelligent beings (like “space aliens”) from other worlds, the Birth of Jesus Christ as a human being would be their only hope of communion with the Creator. No, Jesus would not go and visit or be born into the race of little green men. If they ever existed (which I don’t think they ever did), they would have to center their Martian (or Alpha Centaurian, or Aldebaran, or Vulcan) devotion upon the Cave of Bethlehem.
If there was any life found anywhere off this beautiful, holy Earth, then somehow that life will have to be joined unto the stewardship of humanity so that it could enter into communion with the Holy Trinity. I don’t think there will ever be life found in other places -- even in this entire physical universe (of course, “angelic life” is a different story, and it’s everywhere -- but even if that were the case, the Moment of Bethlehem would still be most important.
The entire universe -- 13.8 billion light years (each one of those is 5,859,000,000,000 miles long) every way no matter where you look -- is big, really big. Did you know, by the way, that there are 63,000 astronomical units (the distance between Earth and the Sun) in a single lightyear; and there are also 63,000 inches (the width of an adult male thumb) in a mile? Kind of a spooky resonance between an AU and the thumb.
But I digress. It could be -- and this possibility depresses every scientist and lies at the bottom of their nightmares -- that the only place where not only intelligent life, but any life at all, exists is this planet, the lowly planet Earth that orbits around a minor star, which, in turn, is located on the Orion Arm of the Milky Way galaxy, which is just one of many, many millions of galaxies in this universe.
What if this place is the only place where there is life, let alone intelligent life? Right now, that is what the scientific evidence suggests. It is not true that life has any statistical probability in the universe. There is no evidence that life exists anywhere else: and really, if evolutionary theory is correct, there should have been obvious evidence of other life already.
But even if there were other outer spaces with other faces, the Nativity in the Manger would be even their central moment, central place. Whether you like it or not, religion is the basic truth of all reality. Even your private reality.
The Nativity is the most important news, the supreme history, of all time and space. It is the central moment of every ethnicity, every nation, and every life. Your life and my life revolve around Bethlehem. It is more important than the Super Bowl, the Stanley Cup, the World Series, the World Wars, the Revolutionary War, the Civil Rights movement, Wall Street’s many ups and downs, the last presidential election.
It is more important than you, or me.
* * * * * * *
Important news is usually announced to important people.
But the most important news of all time was announced first to rather unimportant people.
At least, it seems that way.
Why on earth did God decide to announce the news of the Nativity to unimportant, unconnected, politically insignificant shepherds? He could have picked the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus, for heaven’s sake, and that would have headed off a lot of problems, one would think. God could have forced the Emperor to bow down and accept the fact that this little Infant is God and that everyone would have to become Christian just by the obvious brutal reality.
But here’s the thing: belief is possible only in love. Belief desires and exults in union. God does does not ever work from a distance, like "magic." He works only personally through love.
Faith lives and breathes only through personal trust and hope. Just because you accept the reality of something doesn’t mean you believe in it. My father-in-law Henry accepted the fact that the Nazis ran his prison camp at Stalag XVII-B, but he sure as heck did not believe in them. Our families in the old country accepted the brutal reality of Stalin, but no one in their right mind trusted and hoped in him.
I mean, the devil is real, but who in the world would love the one who hates love? Who could believe in the one who rejects the very reality that reveals God as Holy Trinity? For God is Love, and the only way to believe in Him is through Love and through desire for union. The devil desires for identity through destruction of difference: God desires unity that is achieved through the perfection of difference.
I belabor this point because it explains the only reason why God did not use worldly power and fame to announce the Nativity of His Son in the flesh. If God is Love -- which He is -- then a person can come to Him only through a belief that is personal, a belief of humility and meekness, a belief that calls for trust and hope, a belief that costs everything -- especially the ego.
It is a belief that rewards with joy and peace. It is a belief that is the only way to restore the 20/20 vision that can perceive beauty.
This belief is the same thing as life.
That is the simple reason why the devil (and all those who are in his corporation) are the undead, because they reject life.
And that is the simple reason why God chose the shepherds to be the first to hear the Christmas Gospel: “Glory to God in the Highest: Peace on Earth, Good Will toward Men.”
* * * * * * *
How did shepherds make it to the top of God’s list, even though they were at the bottom of society’s list?
There are three reasons.
The first is that they were dirt poor. It is a sad fact of this fallen world that usually only the poor know what reality is. Only those who are living hand-to-mouth, the weak and the destitute understand that no one can actually make it on their own. Only they realize that we are totally dependent upon the gifts of other people. Only the poor-in-spirit know that every next breath, every next heartbeat is a gift, and without that gift there is no way that you can sleep at night or rise in the morning.
The rich and self-satisfied -- the very people whom the Theotokos sharply criticized in the Magnificat (“My soul magnifies the Lord ... for He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts” Luke 1.46ff) -- are foolish and self-deluded. You can never be satisfied with yourself. That is the stupidest thing anyone can do.
The shepherds never did this. They accepted the fact of their poverty of heart and did not run away from it.
The second reason is that the shepherds were “people of the land” or עם הארץ (am ha-aretz). They were the rural folk who still harbored memories of Eden. They knew the small creatures and cared for them. They understood the soil and the rocks and the plants of the earth. They watched the night skies and could name the constellations, and by this observation knew what time it was, knew where in the month they were, and knew the season.
You and I do not know the earth and sky nearly as much as these unlettered shepherds did who had no internet. They loved Creation, like their Creator does, much better than you or I do.
God announced the Birth of His Son to those who cared most about what He cares about best.
The third reason why God picked the shepherds is the most important, of course.
God chose the shepherds because He Himself is a Shepherd. Of all the titles -- prophet, priest, king -- God chose the Name of “Shepherd” as the Name that would best describe the personality of His Son.
For One Who called Himself the Good Shepherd, doesn’t it make the best sense of all that it was the shepherds in the fields, watching their flocks by night, to whom the Angels announced first the birth of the One Who would bring this pastoral light? ❦