In Christ’s time, a shepherd’s life was lonely, poor and dangerous. A shepherd lived outdoors facing the twists and turns of the seasons and the threats of wild animals. Often a shepherd turned his loneliness into a meditative solitude. A shepherd had the best chance of understanding and praying the Psalms of King David – himself a shepherd.
No one was closer to reality than a shepherd. He was also attentive to the mystery of nature and of God. The more a shepherd butted his head against reality, the more he realized how mysterious it all was. He had his sheep, the stars and his pastures. He loved his flock and his God. It was men like this that the angels came to on Christmas night. Such men were the first to meet the Savior of the world.
After the angels disappeared, the shepherds looked for and found the cave where Jesus was born. In their act of adoration, the shepherds simply and directly gazed into the mystery of the Christ Child. Angels guided their perceptions. They saw a God who could hold the world in his hands, now unable to even enfold the heads of the cattle with his tiny hands. They beheld the God, upon whom they depended on for life, turn to his mother’s breast for the milk of survival.
They stared at the author of the sun’s heat, and noticed he felt a chill until the swaddling robes were tucked around him again. The all-powerful one looked helpless. The very source of life accepted the shadows imposed by the night. Reality’s greatest free-spirit put up with the annoyances of human limits.
The shepherds contemplated this mystery and rested in it. Their life experiences had taught them to be at ease with spiritual reality. This is why they were open to new sources of light and love. This is why the shepherds’ scene was so relaxing and appropriate. Their capacity to absorb these amazing contrasts is the secret of the Christmas story. That is their Christmas gift to us. If we forget the God in the cave, we reduce the Bethlehem event to a charming birth scene with no special meaning.
The Christmas story invites us to come with faith to behold the God Child in the cave. It is not enough simply to admire the Child. Naturally we easily are touched by a new baby. The shepherds did more than that. They adored the Child with their faith. We could sing nursery rhymes at the holy cradle. We should imitate the shepherds who crooned the son of the angels about the “glory in the highest and let there be peace on earth.” The maternal in us simply wants to rock the cradle. What we should do is let the cradle rock the world. With the holy shepherds let us kneel and adore this lovely child who has come to save us from sin and win divine life for us.
Fr. McBride, O.Praem, is a popular lecturer and author of more than 40 books.