With practiced grace, he grasped the legs of the orphaned lamb in each of his weathered hands and wrapped the newborn around his neck to keep the animal warm and safe from wolves. The lamb sniffed the familiar scent and settled on the shepherd’s shoulders. The ewe had died lambing during the night. The shepherd was there and scooped up the still-wet lamb.
Luke’s Gospel tells us:
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today, in the town of David, a savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
We read further from this account that the shepherds left their flocks in search of the baby. When I first saw artistic renderings of a shepherd holding a lamb on his shoulders at the stable, I imagined it a gift for the newborn child. Then, I realized, no, these very poor sheepherders were practical. They were awestruck by the message of the angel surely, but they knew they had a job. Protect the sheep — all of them — the strong, the weak, the orphaned. So this shepherd, even though he must have been frightened at the appearance of the heavenly hosts, headed off to see what they described, not forgetting that he was a shepherd with an orphaned lamb in his care.
Other than the few shepherd figurines that might come with a manger scene, the real shepherds — the sheep-smelling, dirt-spattered, simple herders who were the first to know, the first to visit the Christ Child — are forgotten.
For most of us, we’re drawn to the dazzle. The kings. We’re told they came from exotic lands on dromedaries, dressed in the finest of fabrics with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Recognizing that gold is a precious metal and without even knowing anything about frankincense and myrrh, we realize that these kingly gifts must have been costly, probably presented in ornate boxes and decorated bottles with ribbons flowing.
And so in our Christmas traditions, whom do we emulate? The kings, naturally. We can’t resist. We want to be like them, elegant gift bearers of special gifts. So we make lists and fret and shop and wrap. Some shoppers even stockpile all year in readiness for the holiday. Our merchants guide us through the process for many months hoping to tempt us to purchase the perfect present — to be gift bearers of some merit. Yet, when the day comes, it’s often empty. The gifts disappoint — the sweater was too small, the ring was too large, the toy was forgotten.
Those who resist the kingly practice — or who have reason to be like the shepherd with the orphaned lamb on his shoulders — could be the blessed ones. These are the mothers or fathers at home with a sick child. These are the police officers and fire fighters on duty for Christmas Day. These are those tending the dying at home or in hospice. These are the farmers feeding their animals just like every other day. They might come to the stable if they can, to see the baby, to celebrate the story, to be present and pray; however, never forgetting their responsibility — the lambs entrusted to their care.
Of course, there are always the ill, the old, the poor, the homeless who have no money to shop, no reason to shop, to wrap, to give, so they will be shepherd followers. Showing up if they can.
The kings, well, they went to see a king and brought gifts as was their station. Maybe they hoped to be connected. The shepherds merely witnessed the startling message of the angel, wondering what it could mean and why they were called to the manger.
A portent —
Behold the Lamb of God
The Good Shepherd
Judy Knotts is the author of "You Are My Brother: Lessons Learned Embracing a Homeless Community" and a former principal.