This is a photograph I took three years ago when I went to Israel journeying with 13 students and a rabbi on a program known as “Project Understanding.” Yes, if you look closely, it is a shepherd watching over his flock of sheep.
At this time of the year, we traditionally have shepherds and sheep around our crèche. Why the shepherds? In a beautiful meditation, Fr. Peter John Cameron, O.P. writes,
Certain things about the shepherds made them best disposed for the angel's visit. For example, how could a shepherd not marvel at the way his sheep recognized and heeded his particular voice? It was as if they were made for that voice. Which perhaps made the shepherds wonder about the Voice for which they themselves had been made. Moreover, shepherds were constantly on the lookout, scanning the horizon for predators. They lived in a state of perpetual readiness -- primed to do battle with wild beasts like hyenas, jackals, wolves, and even bears who would threaten their flocks. Their very vulnerable charges depended on the shepherds for protection. Did this move the shepherds to think about their own weakness, and heighten their expectation of a Savior who would come to rescue them from the "wild beasts" of their own inability, evil and sin? A Savior who was even more solicitous and self-sacrificing than they? And who, more than the shepherds, understood the promise of Psalm 23 -- that "the Lord is my shepherd"? Who had greater certainty that what God had revealed in Scripture would become a fact in history?
In other words, the angel visited the shepherds because they are so much like us. Which explains the shepherd's instantaneous response to the announcement of the angel: "Today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord" (Lk 2:11). Once the angelic choir concert is over, the shepherds immediately say to one another, "Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made know to us" (Lk 2:15). Thus, the proclaimed "good news of great joy" corresponds deeply with what the shepherds had always been waiting for. Without hesitation, off to Christ's manger they go. For faith is acknowledging an exceptional Presence that changes us, that fulfills us, that reveals us to ourselves and makes us want to adhere to it with all the strength of our freedom.
The shepherds promptly share what they are given. They become evangelizers who witness to others what had happened to them so that, "when the chief Shepherd is revealed," all "will receive the unfading grown of glory" (1 Pt 5:4).
May we bear witness to the great happenings of this Christmastide. We hope and pray that the Christ Child be born in each of us this year.
On behalf of all my Marianist Brothers,