When it comes to Nativity scenes and Christmas plays, I think the least favorite part to play is probably a shepherd. In the few re-enactments I remember (and I use that word loosely), there weren’t many, if any, of us boys scrambling for the staff. We were after the roles of Joseph, the wise men, or Gabriel. Shepherds weren’t high on our list.
Ironically, that’s pretty close to the way things were viewed in the first Nativity. Shepherding wasn’t the occupation of choice. They weren’t known for their spirituality, only because the nature of their profession – an “unclean” one – kept them from observing the ceremonial law of sacrifices and offerings.
Additionally, the attire that such a job demanded wasn’t exactly on the cover of Jerusalem GQ! Externally, shepherds struggled to gain any type of cultural class.
Furthermore, shepherds had a reputation that was, at best, questionable. “Stories from the hillside” flooded towns and villages, and often the facts grew into legend. The result? They became a group of citizens others considered unreliable. In fact, according to the Talmud, they weren’t allowed to give testimony in the courts as a witness.
See what I mean? Shepherds were seen as monotonously simple. Not sophisticated. Not stylish. Not refined. Not complex or intricate.
Just plain. Simple. Routine. Shepherds.
I think, however, that’s exactly why God selected shepherds as the first testifiers—witnesses—of his Son’s birth: They wouldn’t complicate the issue! Others thought shepherds couldn’t get it; God knew they wouldn’t miss it.
It’s what I call Christmas irony. And it’s just one of many in the Nativity – a virgin is pregnant, a baby is the King, an army (of angels) announces peace, and shepherds are compelled to be the first sharers.
That’s the God of Christmas irony at his best!