They are peasants: simple, hard-working, honest people. Under our layers of modern sophistication and education, we are all peasants. It’s the peasant soul in us, the child in us, that hears angels, that is hailed by the heavenly glory, that dares to hope and wonder with awe.
The shepherds are outdoors, exposed to God’s sky, not protected by human artifice. Even when we’re in an office, surrounded by technology, the shepherd-self in us is always in this situation. No place is safe from God’s invasion.
What the simple shepherds do is the highest and holiest thing any saint or mystic ever does, on earth or in heaven.
They are “keeping watch by night.” In the darkness they wait and watch, like the little child at the center of our souls. And it’s in the darkness that the heavenly light dawns. In the silence is heard the angels’ song. Kierkegaard said, “If I could prescribe only one remedy for all the ills of the modern world, I would prescribe silence. For even if the Word of God were proclaimed, no one would hear it; there is too much noise. Therefore, create silence.”
The shepherds are “keeping watch over their sheep,” as our soul watches over its body with its flock of desires, responsible for the care and direction of our herd or instincts. It’s as we go about this humdrum daily business that supernatural grace comes to us through the ministry of angels. We do not usually see them, as the shepherds did, but they are there. In heaven we will recognize them, and their role in our lives. “So it was you all the time! It was you who were there...then...”
“The glory of the Lord shone round about them.” This is the shekinah, the heavenly light that had appeared visibly over the Ark of the Covenant and on Mount Sinai. We can still see it, but only with the inner eye of faith. Only if we believe, do we see.
“They were afraid.” We fear the unknown, the opening skies, the passages between worlds, like birth and death. Even when the angel says, “Fear not,” the event is no less momentous, The awe is now joyful, not fearsome; but it’s still “awe-full.” It is “good tidings of great joy.” Joy can be as awesome as fear. The Good News, the incredible event of the Incarnation, is the most joyful and the most awesome news we have ever heard.
The angel tells the shepherds that this event is “to you.” Not just to “mankind” in general, but to us, these ordinary individuals — Almighty God comes to our fields, stables, offices and homes. This is no prerecorded message; this is God calling us up personally.
The shepherds’ response is immediate and practical: “Let us go to Bethlehem.” The angel’s message has power; it moves people to go. When Cicero addressed the Roman senate, everyone said, “How beautifully he speaks!” But they remained in their seats. Yet when Demosthenes addressed the Greek army, they leaped up, clashed spear upon shield and said, “Let us march!”
The angels are like Demosthenes. Scholars, seeing angels, say, “Let us interpret this.”
Shepherds, seeing angels, say, “Let us go.” Karl Marx was profoundly right when he said, “Philosophers have only interpreted the world, the thing is to change it.” Both bad religion (Marx’s) and good religion (Christ’s) change the world.
Unlike the wise men, the shepherds have no gifts to bring Christ. They are poor beggars — like us. “Just As I Am” is our song. They come with dirt under their fingernails and in their souls. They come to receive, not to bargain; to wonder, not to understand. They run to Bethlehem to fall on their knees — that is, to fulfill the ultimate purpose for which we were all created.