As anyone raised in the Christian tradition will know, shepherds figure prominently in the story of the birth of Jesus found in the second chapter of Luke. As a shepherd myself, I find my thoughts turning to the nature of herding sheep 2,000 years ago as the Christmas season approaches. My interest is partly professional – I’m curious as to how much of my work these biblical shepherds would recognize (a fair bit, I suspect). But my interest is also philosophical – why did shepherds figure so prominently in the story of the Nativity?
By its very nature, the work of caring for grazing livestock has always been outsider’s work, I think. Even today, tending grazing animals happens on the periphery of civilization. Grazing sheep or goats or cattle on rangelands, because of the type and size of landscapes required, mostly happens outside of urban environments. Shepherds, goat-herds and cowboys, by this definition, are quintessential outsiders. This sense of “otherness” goes beyond geography, too – those of us who graze livestock are often social outsiders as well.
But the angels that announced Jesus’ birth didn’t appear to cowboys. Even 2,000 years ago, those who tended cattle must have achieved higher social status than sheepherders. Herding sheep can indeed be humbling – as can any work with livestock. So much is beyond the control of the shepherd – the weather, the grass, the predators, the market…. Humility, I think, comes from the recognition that we’re not in charge.
In the modern-day shepherds that I know, this humility manifests itself in self-deprecating humor. We know that things can (and often do) go wrong. A storm blows in during lambing. A neighbor’s dog gets into the sheep. An irrigation pipe breaks in the middle of summer. A pandemic sends the lamb and wool markets into a tailspin. And yet we find ways to joke about it. We joke about being lowly sheepherders. We joke, as my friend John Wilkes says, about the “ability of sheep to snuff it without any input.” We know the western wear store will never carry sheepherder hats or sheepherder boots!
But our self-deprecation also hides a secret. Caring for sheep requires us to be with our sheep nearly every day. As such, we’re present for small miracles that most town folks miss – 2,000 years ago as well as today. We see the first green shoots of grass emerge from the living soil after the first rain of autumn. We witness, directly, the miracle of new life with the birth of every lamb. We marvel at the instinct that tells that new lamb that its first meal is located somewhere back there underneath its mother. We see the Sandhill cranes fly north in September and south again in March. We hear the tree frogs begin to sing after a drought-breaking February rain. We’re outside to see most of the sunrises and sunsets in our lifetimes.
I suspect that the story of the angels appearing to the shepherds near Bethlehem is meant to instruct us that Jesus cared even for the outsiders, the lowly shepherds. Raising sheep myself, however, I read more into the story. I also suspect that maybe sheepherders were the only folks likely to be outside at night when the angels appeared! May we all experience a shepherd’s sense of wonder this holiday season!