One Christmas I got something unexpected in the mail – a shoebox, for women’s pumps, black, size 7-1/2 B.
Inside the box were three half-pound packages of coffee from Old Bisbee Roasters in Arizona.
There was a note, from my friend Colleen. When she bought the coffee for me, as a Christmas gift, she’d told the roaster that I was a minister. So he’d said to make sure to tell me that he ‘wants to have a personal relationship’—with me.
There was also a Christmas card. The outside had a cartoon of a little boy, presumably in a Christmas pageant, with a blanket on his head. It was captioned “What Christmas is really about.” Linus, Charlie Brown’s little brother, was reciting from the 2nd chapter of the Gospel of Luke:
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them… And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." So they went with haste…
The shepherds are not passive viewers; they take an active part in the story. And this is their action moment, when they speak, “Let us go down to Bethlehem…” and move toward the promised Child.
What did they go into the City of David to see?
Was the Child a nascent hero, like Hercules? Children’s books say that when Hercules was a baby he was already a super-hero. He strangled snakes in his cradle. And who knows what he got up to when he began to walk – but:
The Christ Child was not Superbaby—he was a real baby. He was vulnerable and soft. His surroundings, warm and fragrant from the animals, were none of his choosing. He was dependent on those around him. Joseph and Mary looked after him. But as we know from the story of the shepherds, he was already drawing toward him those who sought the peace of God.
There in the City of David the Shepherd-king of old, not in a wayfarer’s inn but in a stable, there the King of all shepherds in a manger lay, offering himself as manna, bread of heaven, bread in the wilderness, bread of life – offering himself in obedience and offering that obedience as savior of all; and offering that obedience, to all, as the way that salvation led.
He was the promised Child, the shepherd-king of Isaiah 40:
Comfort, oh comfort My people, Says your God.
Like a shepherd He pastures His flock: He gathers the lambs in His arms
And carries them in His bosom; Gently He drives the mother sheep.
(Isaiah 40:1,11 JPS)
Long ago and far, far away another shepherd abiding in the fields was keeping watch over the flocks by night: Cuthbert, a young man of 9th century Northumbria in northern England. He used to sing the psalms to the sheep at night.
And then one night, at the age of eighteen, he had a vision, or perhaps a dream, and the next morning he went down the hills to Melrose, where he became a monk. The story goes that that was the very night when Aidan, founder of Lindisfarne Priory on Holy Island, had died.
After some years as a monk, Cuthbert was sent to take Aidan’s place. And so he traveled on Cuthbert’s Way, over the hills again, to the Holy Island. There he found behind the priory a beach and across a small inlet of the North Sea a very small rocky islet. At night when the tide was low he would wade out to it, gaze back across the water to the priory where the monks were sleeping, and as they slept he would sing the psalms. “Like a shepherd he pastures his flock…”
The call to Melrose and the call to the priory were moments of decision for Cuthbert. He took action, and got involved in the story. He became a shepherd of men. In doing so, he recalled to mind the Lord that he served – that we serve: Jesus, the Good Shepherd.
The same Lord calls each of us – from field or from home – to come witness the coming of the Christ Child, to adore him, to receive him into our hearts, to share in his life – the obedience, the innocence, the hope – and to bring to the world hope and peace, joy and love, justice and mercy.
The shepherds of Bethlehem went into town to see if Jesus really was the Messiah they’d been waiting for. And they found him:
The Shepherd King,
Who calls each of us by name,
Who watches over his flock,
And sings to them of Paradise.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
A Christmas Carol
Before the paling of the stars
Before the winter morn
Before the earliest cockcrow
Jesus Christ was born:
Born in a stable
Cradled in a manger,
In the world His Hands had made
Born a Stranger.
Priest and King lay fast asleep
Young and Old lay fast asleep
In crowded Bethlehem:
Saint and Angel, Ox and Ass
Kept a watch together
Before the Christmas daybreak
In the winter weather.
Jesus on His Mother’s breast
In the stable cold,
Spotless Lamb of God was He,
Shepherd of the Fold:
Let us kneel with Mary Maid
With Joseph bent and hoary
With Saint and Angel, Ox and Ass
To hail the King of Glory.
Christina Rossetti: The Complete Poems (2001) 564-565.