There is a field located just outside of Bethlehem. It is known as the Shepherd’s Field. It is more of a hillside than a field.
When you approach the field, you notice a fountain and the words “gloria in excelsis deo” written on the walkway as you approach the chapel. Today, this place is a sacred spot of worship and reflection. It is filled with beauty, as you look across a fountain and see the caves that remind you of what this spot once might have been.
Years ago, in the time of Jesus, this spot beyond the center of town was a spot for shepherds to watch their flock. The caves would provide protection from the elements and a place to keep the sheep together. With its proximity to Jerusalem, just a few short miles down the road, the shepherds watched over sheep used for both general life and sacrificial needs.
Shepherds, then, are not the image we see them today. Our nativity sets often paint them as young and clean figures who lovingly gazed over the newborn Jesus. In reality, shepherds were much different. They were dirty and unclean. They roamed from one spot to the other, and, usually, without a lot of concern if they traversed in another person’s property. They were willing to go wherever and do what was necessary to protect their sheep. They were poor. They were not always educated to the same degree as others. They were unwelcomed by society, because they were dirty and not trusted.
It is this group of people, these shepherds, who were watching their fields by night. It was not a mythical group of socially acceptable people who were simply at work. It was this group of unwanted and undesirable people who were at work when they were visited by a group of angels.
Not just any group of angels, but a chorus of angels who shared with them a divine message of the announcement of Jesus’ birth. Just down the hillside and in the village, they were told, Jesus was born in a manager. They weren’t given his name, but they were told what this child would do in his life. He would be the Savior. The one who would bring redemption and reconciliation to all people. They are told of the one who would bring peace and joy to all people, because of the Savior’s mere presence in the world.
This group of shepherds heard the angels singing, “Glory to God and peace on earth to all whom he pleases.” They heard the announcement of God’s peace that was shared with all through the birth of the child. They heard that the one they had long-desired to restore the Davidic kingdom and to fulfill the promises of the prophets had come.
In that moment, this group of shepherds, this group of despised and unwelcomed people, were the first to hear the news of Jesus’ birth outside of Mary, Joseph, and Joseph’s family. They were the first group of people to hear that God’s love had broken into the world’s darkness through the birth of a child. A child who is the embodiment of the world’s hope.
Yet, that news is striking. Good news was often shouted by heralders at the birth of an emperor. Heralders would ride across the Roman Empire to announce when a child had been born to an emperor, especially when that child would be expected to rise to that position himself. They would go to town leaders, rich, and privileged to share that news. It would be a time of joy for the people of power and those with whom had their allegiance within the Roman Empire.
What is striking, here, is that God’s good news of the Savior’s birth, which trumps and overturns the powers of this world, did not come initially to the rich, powerful, and privileged. The message of the world’s true Lord, king, and prince of peace did not come to the elites. It is a message that was not initially shared with Herod. It was not initially shared with the chief priests, the Pharisees, Sadducees, or religious scribes. It did not come to those who were always at the worship services in the synagogues.
The message of the Savior’s birth went, initially, to the unwelcomed and undesirable. It went to the one’s society would look down upon, question their motives, and wait look over their shoulders to make sure they did not take anything. It went to the group of people that were kicked out to their own section of town, so as not to harm the well being of others.
Yet, it went to the very people God loves and truly welcomes into the family of God. For in giving the message of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds, God is announcing what the Christ child will do. That is to extend the arms of welcome and grace to beyond those whom society would desire it be expressed towards. Jesus, this child wrapped in blankets, is in the business of welcoming the unwanted.
That is the hope of Christmas. That joy came not just for a few, but for all people. It is good news for the rich and the poor. It is good news for the wanted and the unwanted. It is good news for the clean and the dirty. It is good news for all.
I wonder what it would look like if we lived that hope out. If we lived our lives as though, truly, the welcome and embrace of God’s love was extended to the undesirable, to the shepherds of our lives, as much as to the desirable. I think if we do this, then, we will live out the true hope of Christmas that sees a child who came for all, including a lowly group of dirty shepherds.