This week we will look at the third group that was invited to come adore the infant Jesus in the flesh – the shepherds. The angels, who had already existed in a state of perpetual adoration of God, rushed out to joyfully proclaim the birth of Jesus to the shepherds in the fields. I find that the shepherds are the most easily relatable characters in the nativity story, in terms of their coming to adore Jesus. Sometimes it can be more difficult to identify with Mary, Joseph, and the angels because they were all fittingly endowed with spiritual gifts that the rest of us simply are not. However, the shepherds, the simple workers in the field, are more representative of us ordinary human beings.
In his book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict XVI spends some time reflecting on the call to the shepherds to come adore the newborn king. He states that the shepherds were a natural choice as the first recipients of the news because they were closest in physical proximity to the event (the stable would have been outside of town). So, at that moment, they were physically closest to God. Benedict goes on to say, “Inwardly too, they were not far from the God who had become a child. What is more, they were among the poor, the simple souls whom Jesus would bless, because to them all is granted access to the mystery of God (cf. Lk 10:21f). They represent the poor of Israel, the poor in general: God’s first love.” Jesus calls us to be poor and humble. Of course, that does not always have to necessarily be in the financial sense, but always in some sense. The Beatitudes tell us, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” (Matthew 5:3). The shepherds were literally financially poor, but they still show us how to adore Jesus in whatever state of poverty and humility we exist. They didn’t have much to offer him, but they rushed to Him, bringing absolutely everything they had in their adoration for Him (Lk 2:16-18). This was enough of a heartfelt expression of adoration that it compelled Mary to treasure them in her heart (Lk 2:19). It is not about what you have to offer God, but that you offer everything you have with abandon. Do you make haste to adore God with your whole being like the shepherds did?
Benedict goes on to say about the shepherds, “Another element has been particularly emphasized by the monastic tradition: the shepherds’ watchfulness. Monks set out to be watchful in this world – in the first place through their nocturnal prayer, but above all inwardly, open to receiving God’s call through the signs of His presence.” This is such a beautiful image of watchful, nocturnal prayer that Benedict gives us. I have no doubt that the perpetual adorers who have committed to overnight holy hours can attest to the beauty of this watchful, nocturnal prayer. Personally, my favorite time to pray is in the very early morning hours before the sunrise when the world around me is still and silent. Now, imagine the shepherds sitting out in the fields in stillness and silence, watching over their flocks, only to be overcome by the presence of glorious angels singing hymns of praise. What a gift and reward for their vigilance!
The second part of Benedict’s statement here is about being “open to receiving God’s call through the signs of his presence.” What are the signs of God’s presence in your life? Like the shepherds, are you keeping prayerful, vigilant watch over everything you have: your livelihood, your marriage, your family, your vocation, your spiritual health, your prayer life? Are you actively and passionately protecting all of these areas of your life from harm? Because, just like the wolves want to devour the sheep, the Enemy is waiting for you to fall asleep so he can devour what is in your care. However, when you do keep vigilant watch over the things in your care, you will see the signs of God’s presence in your life precisely because you are looking for them. God is good and wants to pour all kinds of abundant blessings into your life but, as Benedict says, you have to be open to receiving them, just as the shepherds were open to the signs provided by the angels. In maintaining vigilant watch over the gifts He bestows unto you, and protecting them from harm, you are offering Him adoration through thanksgiving, gratitude, understanding, and with appreciation for their value, saying “Thank you, Jesus!”
Another important point to note about the story of the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth is that their first reaction to the presence and proclamation of the angels was to be gripped with fear (Lk 2:9). I imagine any of us would be paralyzed with fear if such a thing happened to us! But practically speaking, how often have we been filled with fear when we were being called to do something that gives glory to God? Adoring God, and His will for us in our lives, can be very scary at times. The world at large is not accepting of what us Christians have to offer, and we can face reactions to our Christian behavior that include feelings of hate and other vile treatment. Living your life in a way that reflects your adoration for your Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, can be very difficult at times. In those times of gripping fear, when we choose to glorify God and do His will anyway, it is an even greater act of love and adoration than when we do those things that are easy and without resistance. He will bless you even more in those moments. The early Church martyrs are the best examples of individuals who offered God everything they had, down to their very lives, in the face of humiliation, suffering, and torture. So, it is important to remember that the angels told the frightened shepherds, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” (Lk 2:10-11). In other words, the very reason we should not be afraid is because Jesus is with us always. That is the beauty of the Incarnation. Jesus, who exists outside of time, came to us, in time, and remains with us through all of eternity. If we believe that He is truly with us, then we have nothing to be afraid of because He is the one who is ultimately in charge, as King over all the universe.
So, be like the shepherds. Do not hold back in your reckless abandon to rush, adore, and serve our beloved king, who humbled Himself to be with us.