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Why did angels appear to the shepherds?

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Jesus was born in a stable in the midst of poverty, and of all the possibilities, simple shepherds were the first to find him. In their trusting response to the angel’s news, they offer us a model of humility in faith.

The angel’s message to the shepherds is the joyful news that the Savior promised to Israel in its days of darkness is now a present reality: God is with us in the flesh. He is no longer a distant entity, known from afar, but truly close to us. The proclamation that “a savior has been born for you” is a message before that compels us to take a position. Benedict XVI tells us that “if it is true, it changes everything. If it is true, it also affects me. Like the shepherds, then, I too must say: ‘Come on; I want to Bethlehem to see the Word that has occurred there.’ The story of the shepherds is included in the Gospel for a reason: they show us the right way to respond to the message that we too have received” (Benedict XVI, Christmas Eve Homily, 2009).

Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord… [T]he shepherds said to one another, "Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us."

So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child. All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds (Luke 2:8-20).

We know the story. We encounter its basic elements every year, whether by reading the Bible, seeing a nativity play, hearing a homily, gazing at a glistening ornament on a tree, or catching the faint tones of familiar carols through a church door as you hurry past along a city street. Even unbelievers would be hard pressed during the season to escape entirely any reminder of it. And yet, the very familiarity of Christmas presents a problem for us – namely, the loss of the season’s power to move us.

We need to encounter a way that compels us to go beyond a passive annual re-acquaintance with the familiar – and at times, perhaps, even tedious – elements of the Christmas story. We need a way to interpret the story that allows us to enter into it, recognizing that “it happens not only once, in history, but also many times in each individual’s soul. Christ comes to the world — but he also comes to each of us. Advent happens over and over again” (Kreeft, Peter. “The Meaning of Christmas: Look Deeper” National Catholic Register, December 1986).

To be truly changed by this story – that is, to go beyond being mere recipients of information about the event of Jesus’ birth – we need to be able to see ourselves within it. The shepherds, who were the first to hear the news of this birth from the angelic messengers, offer us a precious entry point. As a group, they have no obvious qualifications for the distinction of being the first to know of the birth of the Savior. The shepherds were modest people; there is some historical evidence that they were even social outcasts, rough characters on the fringe of Jewish society. (That they were not allowed to give testimony in court is one indication of their low cultural status.) They are not the people that conventional wisdom would expect to be the first recipients of the good news of the Savior’s arrival. Yet their posture on that night, as Luke the Evangelist describes it – “keeping watch over their flocks at night” – suggests that their hearts may be especially disposed to this announcement. Pope Benedict reflects on the shepherds’ vigilance:

"The principal difference between someone dreaming and someone awake is that the dreamer is in a world of his own. His “self” is locked into this dreamworld that is his alone and does not connect him with others. To wake up means to leave that private world of one’s own and to enter the common reality, the truth that alone can unite all people … Awake, the Gospel tells us. Step outside, so as to enter the great communal truth, the communion of the one God. To awake, then, means to develop a receptivity for God: for the silent promptings with which he chooses to guide us; for the many indications of his presence … Our way of thinking and acting, the mentality of today’s world, the whole range of our experience is inclined to deaden our receptivity for God, to make us “tone deaf” towards him. And yet in every soul, the desire for God, the capacity to encounter him, is present, whether in a hidden way or overtly." (Christmas Homily, 2009)

Amid the silent bleakness of the shepherd’s watch comes the herald of joy, the voice of the angel. Which one of us is able to hear the clear inner voice of the Other – the Lord himself – without being a shepherd in this way, watching quietly in the midst of silence? When the glory of the Lord shone around them, they were struck with fear – a reaction that would seem reasonable enough before the overwhelming heavenly light. And while they do not know what’s happening at this point, the angel hastens to promise that they need not be afraid, because he brings them news that will cause great joy for all people.

Yet, in spite of the universal significance of this event, the more immediate and intimate nature of it is perhaps the most significant point worth considering: “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you.” Upon reading this hastily, one might easily miss the angel’s emphasis on the personal: “born to you”; born as if to you shepherds alone – you, men of humble standing within your society. Is this not indeed good news of great joy? Is this not the awesome mercy of God, who reaches down over us by shrinking his own stature to that of a baby, so that he can touch those not only in the high places but also the weeping wounded and the simple of heart? Is this not where our personal story can enter into this one?

The angel’s parting words to the shepherds are a challenge to respond to this good news: “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in clothes and lying in a manger.” At this point, the shepherds might well have been perplexed — “How is this a sign? What does a baby in a manger have to do with the Messiah? Where is he?”

Like all other Jews, the shepherds would have expected to go to a home of distinction to find the Messiah; a manger would probably be the last place they would have imagined. Yet, they respond with mysterious conviction, asking no questions of the angel or their own senses. Taking prompt action, they say, “Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing which has happened.” And then, Scripture says, they hurry to find the baby. They hurry.

“God is important,” Pope Benedict reminds us, “by far the most important thing in our lives. The shepherds teach us this priority. From them we should learn not to be crushed by all the pressing matters in our daily lives. From them we should learn the inner freedom to put other tasks in second place however important they may be so as to make our way towards God, to allow him into our lives and into our time. Time given to God and, in his name, to our neighbour is never time lost. It is the time when we are most truly alive, when we live our humanity to the full” (Ibid). Finding the baby in the manger, the shepherds immediately adore him as God.

John Paul II points out that “their eyes see a newborn child, wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a manger, and in that ‘sign,’ thanks to the inner light of faith, they recognize the Messiah proclaimed by the Prophets” (Christmas Eve Homily, 1998). In spite of their expectations, the shepherds are content – perhaps even amazed – with the mystery of God made man in a tiny child, under the most lowly and familiar of circumstances. But what was it that facilitated this “inner light of faith” that allowed the shepherds to recognize the Messiah? How could they possibly be so accepting of this situation, which turned out to be so different from their expectations?

“When we see him, the God who became a child, our hearts are opened. In the Liturgy of the holy night, God comes to us as man, so that we might become truly human” (Pope Benedict XVI, Christmas Homily, 2009). In seeing him, the shepherds’ hearts were opened, but they needed humility in order to see the Chirst Child as God.

‘This will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger’ (Lk 2:12; cf. 2:16). God’s sign, the sign given to the shepherds and to us, is not an astonishing miracle. God’s sign is his humility. God’s sign is that he makes himself small; he becomes a child; he lets us touch him and he asks for our love. We become like God if we allow ourselves to be shaped by this sign; if we ourselves learn humility and hence true greatness (Ibid).

The shepherds allowed themselves to be shaped by the sign of God made man in a tiny babe.

The Catechism tells us that “to become a child in relation to God is the condition for entering the kingdom. For this, we must humble ourselves and become little…. Only when Christ is formed in us will the mystery of Christmas be fulfilled in us” (CCC 526).

Like Mary, who sang a song to God who exalts the lowly, the shepherds recognize this condition for entering the kingdom: to become a child of God. A small child accepts the gift of his parents without condition. He does not need to understand it or fit it to his expectations. He does not question his own worthiness of the gift or attempt to earn it. The shepherds didn’t run and hide in fear or pride of their own dirtiness, their personal sins and shames. Neither did they shuffle toward the baby in the manger, afraid of being exposed in their ugliness. A child does not question with anxiety his worthiness of the gift; he receives the gift with joy, in profound trust of the one giving.

The shepherds, humbling themselves and becoming little, entered the Christmas story in a way that fulfilled the promise of the angel. But moreover, they entered it in a way that made it possible for the mystery of Christmas to be fulfilled in them.

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