Christmas Shepherds in May


While cutting out and painting two shepherds and two sheep during “home shelter,” we’ve had a lot of time to think about what life might have been like for these men. We may often think about shepherds during December when we hear the dear account of Jesus coming to earth as a tiny baby. But what about the rest of the year? Could we catch a glimpse of a shepherd’s life, what he might have endured, how he may have thought?

The first day we worked on painting the shepherds we only did their cloaks, sashes, and headdresses. As we left them that evening they were still just cut out boards with paint on them. But the next day we painted their faces. Suddenly they became real, no longer just plyboard, but people.  One tall shepherd in gold caftan and green sash is holding a staff (that staff with its crook took some fine sawing on Charles’ part!) and has a look of awe on his face. The other shepherd is kneeling with eyes closed in worship. Even our feeble attempts at painting eyes, noses, hands and feet brought forth in us a feeling that these men could (almost) talk.

What might they say?

Shepherds are often cast as the lowliest of the low because of their grimy smelly job. As former sheep owners ourselves we can vouch for how messy and oily sheep shearing is. But shepherds were due a great deal of respect. They were the ones who raised those perfect lambs for temple sacrifices. One online source, Father Dwight Longenecker, declares the shepherds were not mere “country bumpkins” who would have only the vaguest idea of what the Angel’s announcement meant. After all, these shepherds and others in the fields raised up to 265,000 lambs for the Passover sacrifices each year.

Did you know that a Passover lamb was actually called “The Lamb of God”? Shepherds had to raise lambs that met very strict legal-religious regulations. Lambs could be no more than a year old when sacrificed. They had to be male with no spot or blemish. They had to be born within five miles of Jerusalem, Bethlehem being exactly that. When a lamb was born, if it were male and appeared to be perfect, the shepherd wrapped it in strips of cloth and laid it in a stone feeding trough until the priest could pronounce it worthy to be raised for sacrificing.

The shepherds would have understood better than most what the Angel meant when he said, “You will find the Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

Shepherds lived in the fields with their sheep all year, 365 days and nights, with no tent, no roof over their heads. They would have been so familiar with the seasons, with the sky at different times of year, as well as where the best grazing might be, and what predators might attack. A shepherd was veterinarian, shearer, husbandman, and trainer of bellwethers (lead sheep). He also tied the ewes onto lengths of rope for milking, usually done by women.

I have always treasured Luke’s account of the shepherds on Bethlehem’s hillside who were the first to hear the wonderful Good News. I’m grateful for the Sunday school teacher who prodded me to learn the passage that begins “There were in the same country shepherds abiding in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night.” But working with these figures has made me want to know more about these common men who were chosen above the elite to receive God’s message that night. They had to be men of great wisdom, God’s wisdom, who believed and followed the Angel’s directions, who worshiped in awe, and returned to the fields rejoicing, telling everyone they met what had happened.

What might these weathered men of the field have thought and said? I can imagine such broken sentences as: “Oh, God…” “Can this be?” “This–what just happened?” “Oh, dear Lord, the sounds, the lights…” “Praise be!”

As they walked to that stable or cave they may have been silent in stunned wonder. As they knelt before the King of Kings, I cannot think what they might say except “Oh, God!”

Our wooden, silent shepherds stand now under the eave of our green barn ready to be stored with other Nativity figures until December. It is raining but I can see them from my sewing machine window. It seems appropriate that they experience a good rain before they go into hiding. Shepherds of long ago would have rejoiced at receiving such a rain that would bring forth tender herbage for their sheep, as would present day shepherds in the same area.

A couple more morsels I gleaned from reading about shepherds and their sheep:

Skeptics say lambs were born in spring, not winter. In northern Europe and North America that is true. But in the Mideast, the Awassi sheep most common to the area, lambed in December.

The Awassi sheep have fat tails from whence they receive sustenance during the meagre grazing times.

As pointed out by Father Longenecker, Jesus was born in the same time, place, and with the same treatment (swaddling clothes, lying in a manger) as lambs that would be sacrificed.

I look forward to Christmas when we can add these figures to our Nativity scene. But–right now–I thank God for sending Jesus as a Babe and then as our sacrificial Lamb so that we can have abundance of life now and the prospect of eternal life in the glorious place He has reserved for us called Heaven. Maybe I’ll be able to talk to one of those rugged shepherds and find out more about how it was that starry night on a hill near Bethlehem.


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