The shepherds are an indispensable part of any nativity scene, as they represent the first people outside the Holy Family to know that the Christ has just come into the world. The angel's appearance to them has a great deal of symbolism. Not only do the shepherds foretell the life of The Good Shepherd, but the birth has happened in David's city, and he was, of course, a shepherd himself. But above these things, by appearing to these lowly and lonely members of an agrarian society, the angel shows that the Messiah has come for all people, no matter their status or role.
That universality of the announcement to the shepherds should not be lost on us. Even though we may feel far removed from them today the message still applies. The poet George Herbert understood this. Herbert, a saintly Anglican priest with Welsh origins who died in 1633 at age 39, left behind many well-crafted verses on various subjects, most especially religious ones. In his poem, "Christmas," Herbert writes:
My soul's a shepherd too; a flock it feedsWhat a beautiful way to see one's soul, as a shepherd, just as those shepherds of Bethlehem. And as a shepherd, our soul feeds our thoughts, words, and deeds, for better or for ill. But through the help of Christ, through the presence of his Word, we are better able to care for our thoughts, our words, and our deeds.
Of thoughts, and words, and deeds,
The pasture is thy word: the streams thy grace
Enriching all the place.
"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep," Jesus tells his followers in John 10. And again, "I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep." Not only did Jesus lay his life down for the sheep, he left heaven in the first place for them, appearing to us in Bethlehem on that first Christmas. That in itself was a sacrifice. And just as the angels made clear to the shepherds in the fields that special night, so too does Jesus make clear to us -- he came for all people: "I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd."
On this day after Christmas, as we sort through the mess and reheat the leftovers, let's not forget the lesson of the shepherds who first saw that child. And like George Herbert, may our souls be shepherds, too. Good shepherds, inspired by the best shepherd of them all.