I would have liked being in the planning meeting in the heavenly conference room when the details were being worked out for announcing the birth of Baby Jesus.
I imagine that there was a lot of discussion about who would be allowed to participate in the event, who would be in charge of what, the security arrangements, whether all the participants would be expected to wear the same thing—that sort of thing.
I’m just guessing that there was some fairly intense discussion about who would be the audience for the massive angel choir that would be singing “Gloria in Excelsis.” Someone might have suggested that it be a private performance just for the Holy Family, but no doubt it was overruled because it might wake the baby. Most likely someone recommended a global songfest that everyone in the world could see. That was shelved because it lacked focus.
And then someone suggested the shepherds.
For one long moment there was a shocked incredulity in the room. The shepherds? They were the lowliest of all classes, excluded from participation in most public life because they were rough and loud and smelled terrible. Their work demanded their full attention—so they were never in the market or the public square unless they were in the company of sheep or lambs—and they were forbidden to even go near the inside of the Temple.
But the shock only lasted a moment. It only took an instant to remember that God had frequently compared himself to a shepherd throughout his relationship with humanity. They remembered that David, the greatest King of Israel, had been a shepherd when God chose him to lead Israel—and that Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem, David’s hometown.
Knowing what they knew about the mission of Jesus to the world, they could imagine that Jesus might compare himself to a Shepherd, because just as a shepherd protects his flock, Jesus would protect his people; just as a shepherd feeds his lambs and all his flock, Jesus would nourish and nurture the whole human race; and just as a Shepherd would do anything to protect and rescue his sheep, Jesus would grow up to be the man who would go beyond any protection or rescue in the history of the world.
And perhaps that is why on that first Christmas Eve, there were shepherds “abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men (Luke 2:8-13).
And that’s why, once the angels ended their song and the skies cleared, there was a scramble to secure the flock, and a bunch of shepherds made their way to Bethlehem where they “found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.”
And that’s why any time we tell the story of how the world came to know that the Savior was come, whether we tell it in churches, in homes, or in circles of friends—even when Mary recounted the story of his birth to Jesus himself—the story doesn’t start with “Once upon a time,” but with a reminder of those rough and simple characters gathered with their flock on a starlit hillside: “There were shepherds.”