The Christmas Shepherds
More than kids in blankets
Cross-posted to Facebook, but also posting it here so I have an easier-to-access copy for myself!
“The First Noel the angels did say
was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay”
This year I am incredibly hung up on the Christmas shepherds.
Not the cute little Christmas pageant children with nicely-washed robes and well-rehearsed lines. The real ones, the gruff, messy ones straight from first-century Bethlehem. Indulge me for a second and imagine meeting them as they made their way to meet Jesus.
You see a pack of unruly men dressed in rags, their teeth rotting and unkempt hair full of lice, emaciated by the worms that fill their stomachs. Their wizened faces bear creases usually reserved for folks decades older, weathered by years of sleeping in caves and fields. Their erratic behavior reinforces a lifetime of stories of violent crime by men like this, and so you keep your distance.
It doesn’t help, of course, that some of them are muttering incoherently about sky-people made of fire. You accidentally make eye contact with one, who holds your gaze a little too long as he shouts something about finding “king baby”. It’s not clear if he’s been drinking or if this is a case of untreated mental illness, and you aren’t really interested in staying to find out.
You feel a little bad, but you don’t really know what to say to a person like this. You smile at them in pity, feeling a little bit too confident that you “brightened their day,” and continue awkwardly on your way. Probably best not to interfere.
A couple of hours later, you see the pack returning with rowdy cheers and singing an off-key ballad as joyful as it is grating. You have a bit of a headache and don’t want to deal with this, so you kindly (and perhaps a bit condescendingly) ask them to keep it down. They laugh and shout and carry on.
With vocal cords fried by years of malnourishment they tell you about an angel they saw, a dozen-eyed eldritch creature like something out of either a bad trip or a horror movie. They tell you what they heard about God himself born in a stable, and narrate in excruciating detail how the sky opened up for thousands of these terrifying spiritual beings to sing glory to the One who must be even more unfathomable. At last, and with excitement bordering on hysteria, they describe their successful trek to find this divine baby and everything they saw in his eyes.
But perhaps the most surprising thing about this whole encounter is that you believe them. It’s right there in the gospel of Luke: “all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.”
You can’t explain it, but something deep inside moves you to listen to the voices of this group you’ve spent your entire life ignoring. This inexplicable stirring is your first clear glimpse at the kingdom of God, where the pyramid of privilege and power and “relevance” is suddenly and irrevocably turned on its head.
These mangy, vulgar, homeless sheep herders are not just “a problem” for your city to get rid of, or some sort of health and safety hazard, or a sad, sad story for you to take pity on and magnanimously stoop to help. They aren’t even “just like you and me”, or (as we sometimes feel charitable by saying) “on equal footing with us before God”.
No, God has chosen them to be among the first witnesses of his birth, before even the wise men — chosen them and, in particular, not chosen you. “These people” you’ve looked down on are not just your brethren, but *ahead of you in line* for God’s kingdom. They’re the very ones inviting you in!
Because the story of Christmas isn’t about joy and peace for comfortable people, or celebrating conservative white culture, or an abstract faith-for-forgiveness transaction that promises heaven without changing earth.
Christmas instead is the story of a God whose reign is dangerous and radical and even political. A God who refuses to remain safely neutral, instead bringing the entire power of heaven fully and unambiguously on the side of the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized.
The very first Christmas hymn, sung by Mary when she first heard she would conceive a baby, celebrates the fact that “[God] has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”
When Jesus grows up, he fulfills this by declaring his full alignment with society’s powerless and those who suffer, declaring that “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” and just a few chapters later reiterates this by declaring that “blessed are the poor” who he has come to save, but “woe to the rich” who have already received their fill.
And on Christmas Day, he explicitly ignores the wealthy and the comfortable and the educated, instead seeking the company of a bunch of homeless shepherds.
If a president refused to invite a single dignitary, former president, member of congress, donor, or person of means to their inauguration, choosing instead to fill every single seat of every banquet with the local unhoused population, the decision would be hotly debated for months.
So why are we no longer scandalized by the Christmas shepherds?
Is it that we see ourselves in them, our “we don’t see color”-style mantras preventing us from seeing that powerful churches and complacent adults in the wealthiest country in history are maybe less shepherd-like than our homeless LGBT neighbors or the global poor?
Is it that the kindness and generosity we show our equally well-off neighbors convinces us that we’re following Jesus’s call to “love one another”? Have we reduced hospitality to inviting our peers and family to our parties, ignoring Jesus’s hard command that we ignore them to instead “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, [and] the blind” whose friendship will be much more valuable in heaven?
Or is it that in some sense we’ve convinced ourselves that heaven will be full of people like us living the way we currently live? Is it too painful to see ourselves on the fringes, on the margins, fully chastened and humbled, begging for grace from the people we let starve, the sick we wouldn’t pay to heal, and the refugees we refused to let in our countries?
It’s not that “a gospel” that doesn’t elevate the poor is a frustrating misstep in an otherwise Christian life.
It’s that “the gospel” without real steps toward social justice just isn’t the gospel at all. It isn’t Christmas and it isn’t Jesus and it isn’t saving faith, and whatever kingdom we’re reflecting certainly isn’t God’s.
So this Christmas, please don’t try to soften the story. Don’t shave away the rough edges or water down the hard teachings or bury the nagging feeling that we might be closer to Herod’s scribes than we are to Mary. Celebrate the birth of Jesus for what really is: a controversial, frightening promise to turn the world as we know it completely upside down.
Christmas is big and it’s life-changing and it’s painful when you’re the one with power and privilege. It’s okay to be afraid, to be excited, to be convicted, sanctified, astonished and overwhelmed and angry.
But please, please, *please* do not be indifferent.