Reflections on the Fourth Sunday of Advent: The Story of the Shepherds

Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent. For the past three Sundays,  I have shared passages from the Bible that relate the experiences of Mary and Joseph, as well as the story of the birth of Christ. Today, let’s recall the story of the shepherds. Like Mary and Joseph before them, the shepherds received the uncommon blessing of an angelic visitation.

Luke 2:9 – 20 Annunciation to the Shepherds

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to 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. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

Tiffany window, shepherds

Tiffany stained glass window, Annunciation to the Shepherds

It is strange and beautiful, is it not? Angels visited Joseph and Mary, but to our knowledge, the only other people they sought out to tell the joyful news of the birth of Jesus were a group of shepherds. The angels did not appear to priests or kings, they did not even appear to the wise men — they followed a star.

What can it all mean?

I am struck by the line “just as they had been told.” The shepherds faithfully reported what they had been told by the angels. Had the angels trusted them to do just that? Surely, had they appeared to a figure of state or a high priest, there would be some danger of that person turning the events to his or her advantage, or reshaping the story, or seeking some kind of personal glory in it.

But there was no danger of that with the shepherds. Reliability was central to their profession. They had nothing to gain, so they were simply truthful and reverent.

If you can, tonight, as the sun sets, find some place where you can be quiet. If you like, light a candle, or light four candles for the four Sundays of Advent. Meditate on the story of the shepherds, how they were visited by angels and the journey they undertook.

As I have done with previous posts, I’d like to share an image from one of my childhood books, The Christmas Story, illustrated by Eloise Wilkin, that depicts this scene.

Have angels appeared in your life, perhaps in less overt ways and forms?

When has your heart been called to take action, and to what purpose? How did that feel? How did you know what to do?

In what ways can you emulate the truthfulness and diligence of the shepherds?

Reflect on any messages this story has for you today. And this evening, if the weather permits it, step quietly outside, just for a moment, to listen to the singing of the stars.

Carol: Angels We Have Heard On High (from the traditional French carol)

Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o’er the plains
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains
Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Gloria in excelsis Deo!

Shepherds, why this jubilee?
Why your joyous strains prolong?
What the gladsome tidings be?
Which inspire your heavenly songs?
Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Gloria in excelsis Deo!

Come to Bethlehem and see
Him whose birth the angels sing;
Come, adore on bended knee,
Christ the Lord, the newborn King.
Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Gloria in excelsis Deo!

See Him in a manger laid
Whom the choirs of angels praise;
Mary, Joseph, lend your aid,
While our heart in love we raise.
Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Gloria in excelsis Deo!

Please join me on January 6 for another reading, this one on the Three Magi, on Epiphany.


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