238. Shepherd’s Field: Passing on the Divine Message

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In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. [Luke 2:8-20, NRSV]

    

[1] Church of the Shepherd’s Field. [2] Angel’s announcement to shepherds. [3] Shepherds paying homage. [4] Shepherds celebrating and witnessing. (Photo credit: Dr. LL Chan)

Bethlehem became known as the “City of David” and it was predicted that the Messiah would be born there (Micah 5:1-5). Apart from the Church of the Nativity and the Grotto of the Nativity, our trip to Bethlehem also covered the Church of the Shepherd’s Field. It is a Franciscan-run Roman Catholic church. Located southeast of Bethlehem in the Palestinian-controlled West Bank, this small church marks the place where traditionally the angel is believed to have announced the divine message of the birth of Jesus Christ and together with a multitude of heavenly hosts praised God. This Catholic site is located in an area called Siyar el-Ghanam (Place for Keeping Sheep). Caves where shepherds “kept watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8) still abound in this area.

Designed by the renowned Architect of the Holy Land Antonio Barluzzi in 1954, this church is appropriately shaped as a shepherd’s tent and so reminiscent of the tents of the nomadic Bedouin tribes.

The only light in the interior of the church comes from skylights in the dome symbolizing the relationship between earth and the sky. The ceiling being white enhances the radiance of the light that comes down, suggesting the brightness that must have come upon the shepherds that night. Angels encircle the ceiling, with their words written in gold: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those whom he favours” (Luke 2:14). Bronze statues of shepherds support the altar.

Paintings on the walls depict the wondrous events of that night: the angel’s announcement to the shepherds; the shepherds paying homage to Jesus; and the shepherds celebrating the birth of the Messiah and witnessing it to others.

Below the church are the caves where the shepherds lived while they tended their flocks.

The general area where this church is located is also linked to where the two Hebrew matriarchs Ruth and Naomi, while on their way to Bethlehem from Moab, were permitted to glean in the fields behind the harvesters (Ruth 2-4). Ruth finally married Boaz, and they became parents of Oved, the father of Jesse, the father of King David.

Reflection:

[1] The divine message was meant to be passed on

Firstly, the shepherds were in great fear. Who wouldn’t be?

As Luke tells it, the glory of the Lord” shone all around them, and “an angel of the Lord” stood in front of them. At night. Who wouldn’t be afraid? But the angel, in typical angelic greeting, said, “Don’t be afraid.”

We are not told if the angel is Gabriel who also caused Mary to be “greatly troubled” at the Annunciation.

The important thing, however, is that as serious a matter as divine revelation is, what God wants is not our fear, even though humans would quite naturally react in fear initially. What is required of the human recipients is to take the divine message with all the seriousness and respect it deserves and to go on to act according to what God expects us to do. Divine messages are never given in vain; but are meant to be acted on. In this case, the divine message was meant to be passed on for the world to know.

[2] The divine message spoke of God’s Child born in poverty

Secondly, Luke seems to suggest that the shepherds needed a sign. The angel seems to know that as well, so that they could find their way to this miraculous Baby.

As the story unfolds, the angel gave them two signs. The Baby would be wrapped in strips of cloths and lying in a manger.

Luke uses a medical term for “swathing”, wrapping someone up in strips of cloth. While that way of wrapping was a custom of the time performed on newborn babies to help their limbs grow straight, spiritually we might go on to imagine that Luke perhaps is here cleverly helping his readers to imagine that the Baby was wrapped with odd pieces of cloth or rags by a couple of poor parents under some emergency circumstances. Mary and Joseph would conceivably have to cope with their first-ever childbirth on extremely deprived and make-shift facilities, so that the strips of cloth or rags, specifically detailed by Luke, were here scripted as token of the Baby’s poverty. “No room in the inn for them” then points us to an extreme deprivation of proper medical facilities for such a major human event as a childbirth as well.

Hence, do we not have here a suggestion from Luke that, from the outset of the story of Jesus of Nazareth, he was destined not only as “a man for others”, but in an excruciating and heart-wrenching way in true solidarity and co-humanity, as “a man with others”, especially the Poor and all who live on the margins? He came as one of the Poor and marginalized. Today, how would our claims to “serve Christ”, or to be “in service of Christ” bear any truth if, beyond “keeping busy” we neglected the Poor and those who live on the margins of society (Matthew 25:41-46)?

Hence, do we not have here a suggestion from Luke that, from the outset of the story of Jesus of Nazareth, he was not destined so much to be “a man for others” as “a man with others”, especially the Poor and all who live on the margins?

[3] The divine message was given to the Poor

Thirdly, Luke’s emphatic reference to the shepherds makes a very striking point. These shepherds were in the same region keeping watches by night over their sheep. These men may have been watching over the temple sheep, sheep designated for sacrifice. That at once points us to Jesus Christ and the reason for his coming into the world. Jesus the Good Shepherd (John 10:11) is at the same time the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Christ took on himself true humanity when he became the Babe of joyful Christmas born in Bethlehem, that he might become the Man of Sorrows identified in the passages of Isaiah 53 (Servant Songs) enduring ultimate sacrifices on the cross (Heb. 10:5; 2:14).

How fitting therefore it is that the first announcement was made to shepherds. It is worth noticing that in his narrative of this nocturnal visit of the angel to the shepherds, Luke the evangelist who gives us that beautiful Marian hymn called The Magnificat where Mary praised God for raising the lowly and sending the rich away empty, seems to deliberately acknowledge the political power (Tiberus Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod and his brother Philip) as well as the high priests (Annas and Caiaphas) (Luke 3:1-2), and yet, he makes it plain that this Christmas message of God neither went to the palaces nor to the Temple. In today’s terms, the Word of God did not go to Church. Instead, the angel’s announcement of the fulfillment of prophecy goes to the lowly shepherds living in the fields. That reminds us that the Word of God came to John not in his father Zechariah’s office in the Temple, but out in the wilderness. Are we not compelled to wonder over this startling truth:

  • That if we take Luke’s Gospel seriously, and we really want to experience the birthing of Christ Jesus on earth, the last place to have that concrete experience is in the church. For, as Luke has it, Jesus is being born where people need him most, amongst the Poor, in the margins of what is considered “decent” society. Jesus is born with the Poor and to the Poor, the lowly who shall be raised.

The birth of the Good Shepherd was first announced to those men whose very work spoke of the person and work of Jesus Christ—the Lamb of God. It was this Lamb who would lay down his life for us, provide for and lead us on the right path, and then one day reward those who have been faithful themselves as under-shepherds. The glory of God, for which Israel had long awaited, could not be and was not revealed to the priests or the Pharisees, or the religious and spiritual elites, but to those they despise – the lowly and unworthy shepherds. The theme of humility, evident in the stable where Jesus was born, continues here.

The Bible is replete with references to shepherds of course, including such great Old Testament patriarchs as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and David who were all shepherds at some time in their lives. However, in Jesus’ time, shepherds had a bad reputation, as the Rabbinic literature listed “shepherd” as among the most despised occupations. Far from the positive image of a shepherd leading his flock to green pastures and still waters presented by Psalm 23, which still is one of the most beautiful images of shepherding ever written, most of the time shepherds were thought of as thieves and of dishonest character, stealing sheep and reporting to their employers as lost or eaten by lions.

Here, however, Luke says the angel’s good news was not given to the rich and famous, the noble or pious, but to workers of low reputation. Significantly, packed with ironies and defying expectations, shepherds were the first to hear the good news of the birth of the Messiah.

  • They were the first to receive the proclamation of Christmas;
  • They were the first to visit and pay homage to the Christ-Child;
  • They were the first to bear witness;
  • For God had seen to it that the most humble and despised became the most honoured; and
  • Just as the Virgin Mother of Jesus had proclaimed before his birth, God had lifted up the lowly and sent the rich away empty.

Humility is again the theme here. Might we not humbly consider asking God for help to break some of our unhealthy expectations in life?

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Thank you all for joining us in these reflections for 2019. May you have a very merry Christmas, and may you receive the greatest possible gift – the perception of the Christ spirit in your own heart. May you feel His presence on Christmas Day and every day throughout the New Year

Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, December 2019. All rights reserved.

You are most welcome to respond to this post. Email your comments to jeffangiegoh@gmail.com. You can also be dialogue partners in this Ephphatha Coffee-Corner Ministry by sending us questions for discussion.

 

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