And there were in the same country shepherds watching, and keeping the night watches over their flock. And behold an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the brightness of God shone round about them; and they feared with a great fear. And the angel said to them: Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, that shall be to all the people: For, this day, is born to you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David. And this shall be a sign unto you. You shall find the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God, and saying: Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will. And it came to pass, after the angels departed from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another: Let us go over to Bethlehem, and let us see this word that is come to pass, which the Lord hath shewed to us.
And they came with haste; and they found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. And seeing, they understood of the word that had been spoken to them concerning this child. And all that heard, wondered; and at those things that were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God, for all the things they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them (Luke 2:9-20).
It is a humble job, leading the sheep to pasture, watching them as they feed, and taking them back to their pen. Shepherds live under the sky and gaze above during the night if they are out in the fields, as were the shepherds of Bethlehem on Christmas night. It is a vocation made for contemplation. Saint Patrick was fully won back to God while living his years of captivity as a lonesome shepherd. Many Patriarchs were shepherds: Abel, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and his sons, Moses, and David.
The shepherds to whom the angels appeared Christmas night were feeding their flocks in a field nearby Bethlehem. It may have been a huge flock requiring a number of shepherds. Let’s just say there were three, as one tradition has it. Cornelius a Lapide cites one father of the Church as supposing that the field was the same as that used by the Patriarch Jacob for grazing his sheep. This field was nigh Bethlehem about a mile away.
And, yes, it was winter, December the 25th to be exact. And, no, the fields around Bethlehem, and in all Palestine, were not frozen in the winter. In fact, in the similar climate of Italy shepherds still can graze their sheep in winter. This particular place, thought to be the field of Jacob, was called Tower of Edar, that is, “of the flock.”
I have also read that the fields around Bethlehem were where the sheep grazed which were used in the sacrifices in the temple. How fitting, then, that the Lamb of God, who fulfilled by His atoning Blood these ritual sacrifices, should be heralded by angels and shepherds.
The Gospel story is so simple in its beauty.
It is a wonderful thing to ponder these humble and expectant Jewish believers coming over to Bethlehem at midnight “with haste,” their sheep in tow. Good shepherds would never leave their sheep alone. Perhaps the angel had pointed to the stable off on the horizon with a light from his finger. The darkness would be a perfect backdrop for this guiding ray of light after the whole canopy of heaven had been illumined “round about them” just before by the glory of God. And this bright glory must have been of unearthly brilliance with a whole choir of the celestial hosts appearing, “Glory to God in the Highest and on earth peace to men of good will!” There in the stable, shining in the night, they would find the “sign” of the Infant Savior “wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
Saint Joseph, no doubt, heard them coming and went out to greet them. And entering the cave, which was a stable for animals, they found the Savior in the manger with His mother kneeling before Him in adoration. And they, too, adored. And, shortly to come, the Wise Men, the gentile kings, would come to adore this King of the Jews, “the Expectation of the Nations,.” foretold by Jacob about seventeen hundred years before.
We are in good company when we go to Bethlehem at Mass. We have Our Lady, Saint Joseph, and the angels of the altar. “Adore Him, all you His angels!” (Psalm 96:7). This is Christ’s Mass when the Bread of Life is made present. It is Bethlehem come to us today, just as Golgotha becomes presnt for us today in an unbloody manner at the double consecration.
Let us never be sluggish in coming to Bethelem. The shepherds came “with haste.” And, bearing the God-Man in her holy womb, the Blessed Virgin “with haste” traveled from Nazareth to Ain Karim to give help to her elderly cousin Elizabeth who was six months with the child, John the Baptist. Now John himself would go in haste into the desert as soon as he was of age. He did not dally to “prepare the way of the Lord.” In fact, as soon as he was in the presence of the Lord Incarnate, while still in the womb, He leapt for joy at the sound of the greeting of the Theotokos.
One who leaps for holy joy manifests a yearning to rise above the mundane. To be lifted up with Christ on the Cross that he may ascend with Him into heaven. He leaps upward as the Word leapt downward, humbling Himself in the garment of a man: “For while all things were in quiet silence, and the night was in the midst of her course,Thy almighty word leapt down from heaven from thy royal throne, as a fierce conqueror into the midst of the land of destruction” (Wisdom 18:14).