Friday, December 25, 2015

Whom Shepherds Guard and Angels Sing

Merry Christmas!

I have particular fondness for Christmas music -- more specifically, Christmas hymns. One of my absolute favorite Christmas songs (and favorite songs of all time) is "What Child is This?" It captures, for me, the rich simplicity of one of the most extraordinary events in human history. The  lyrics to this song are deep with meaning and soaked in the reality of Christmas. Verse by verse, a story is told which is penetrated by awe and wonder at something small and unimpressive. Latter verses of the song, which are often unheard because artists seem to enjoy repeating the first verse over and over again, tell of the cross and the wise men and the Virgin and her lullaby. But the first verse -- that same first verse we all know by heart because we've heard it so many times -- is about something seemingly less important than the wise men bearing gifts, irrelevant in comparison to the cross of Christ and his Mother.

What Child is this who laid to rest on Mary's lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet, while shepherds watch are keeping?

Shepherds. The song begins with a question -- who is this baby that angels are singing for, and why are there dusty smelly shepherds standing around?

It is easy, as people who have heard the story over and over, to take for granted that Jesus' first visitors in this world were shepherds. Although it is unfair to say that the shepherds are ignored (they're a central element of any nativity scene or Christmas play), it is true that the significance of their invitation to and their presence at the nativity of our Lord is terribly overlooked. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said in his book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives:

"...perhaps [the shepherds] were not living only outwardly but also inwardly closer to the event than the peacefully sleeping townsfolk. Inwardly too, they were not far from the God who had become a child. What is more, they were among the poor, the simple souls whom Jesus would bless, because to them above all is granted access to the mystery of God. (cf. Lk 10:21f) They represent the poor of Israel, the poor in general: God's first love."
That the shepherds were the first to visit the newborn King is no accident. According to God's plan, it seems that it was wholly intentional that the first to lay eyes on Jesus in the flesh were poor people, living simple lives, up in the middle of the night, tending to the vulnerable and the fragile. In fact, we know it was God's plan that the shepherds themselves be invited, specifically, to adore Jesus Christ on that first Christmas night. They didn't happen upon him by accident -- they were urged to go see him by an angel of the Lord. And the angel imparts, to them and to us in the eternal words of Sacred Scripture:

"Do not be afraid."

"I bring you good news...for all people."

"Today...a Savior has been born to you."

"He is the Messiah."

Following the angel's greeting, a "multitude" of angels appear, singing praises and glorifying God; though the Son of God is born into a world which rejects him, he remains Lord of the heavenly realms, Master over the angels who adore, love, and worship him. They pour out their perfect praise in honor of his birth. This is no ordinary baby -- this child is the Son of a great King who sends his heavenly servants to tend to him and sing for him and bless him and announce him to the world.

And the world, that night, to whom his birth was announced was the world of the poor, the simple, and the afraid. The good news of great joy, news of a child blessed of highest heaven come down to the lowest of the low, comes first to those most in need of it.

This, this is Christ the king,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing.
Haste, haste to bring him laud

The Babe, the Son of Mary.

1 comment:

  1. That's beautiful. I hadn't reflected on the importance of the shepherds' presence until now.