On Monday night, I read the following narration at Canto, a concert benefitting the Good Samaritan Center (a clinic run by my husband) here in Fredericksburg. Astute WACOAN readers will recognize some elements from this month’s column. This came first! Thanks to the director, Jeryl Hoover, for pushing me to write something different. To the rest of you, you should have heard the choir!
SEEKING THE CHRIST CHILD: THE SHEPHERD’S STORY
Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus (all sing)
Sing We Noel
1. “Once more the humble will rejoice in the LORD; the needy will rejoice in the Holy One of Israel.” (Isaiah 29:19)
I used to sing.
I grew up in an Episcopal church, and my favorite service was the one where we sang the most. When we didn’t sing, I got bored, so I’d flip to the front of the hymnal and silently sing the Christmas carols in my head. To this day, I know all the verses by heart.
Then I found choir. Choir was my main extracurricular activity from sixth grade through my freshman year of college. All my friends were in choir. All the boys I had crushes on were choir boys. I sang first soprano, and I loved it. Our high school’s Christmas performances included selections from Handel’s “Messiah” and “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” Those productions bred in me a lifelong love of sacred, choral Christmas music.
When I transferred colleges, my sophomore year, I auditioned for a choir but didn’t make it. Part of the problem was that I was no longer a first soprano, and I didn’t know how else to sing. Part of it was that I had developed asthma, which is still a problem for me. My medicine hasn’t helped my voice. I thought it was just me until my mother took the same medicine when her cancer began to interfere with her breathing. Soon she gave up the medicine.
“I couldn’t sing when I was taking it,” she told me.
Was my mom in a choir? No. Did she sing solos? No. She just loved to sing, even when she was just walking around the house. And she wasn’t about to take a medication that would keep her from being able to sing.
Singing is a part of Christmas because the angels sang. And who was their audience? A bunch of shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks one night. The shepherds aren’t the ones who sang. They are the ones whose lives were changed by what the angels sang: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, goodwill toward men.”
Gloria in altissimis Deo from Christmas Oratorio
2. “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” (James 4:10)
The shepherds were humble people in more ways than one. They were near the bottom rung of the social ladder. Don’t think of a rancher. Think: sharecropper. Often a shepherd was the youngest son of peasants who didn’t own any land. It wasn’t exactly a status position.
The shepherds were also humble people in that their lives were pretty simple. I doubt they talked a lot of politics out in the fields. I imagine the sheep ruled their schedules. Is it lambing time yet? Is it shearing time? Aside from their flocks, I think their next biggest concern of the shepherds would have been their families. Is anyone sick? Is someone getting married?
The Bible doesn’t tell us anything about the shepherds’ spiritual lives. Perhaps they knew God best through his creation. I bet they knew all the pictures in the stars. I bet they knew every wildflower and native grass. If you dropped them in a field in the dead of night under a new moon, I bet they could find their way home. They probably knew every critter that could be hunted and how to evade every foe. I imagine they wouldn’t seek a fight, but they wouldn’t lose one, either.
Yet with all of their concerns, only one invitation could induce them to leave their sheep, and that was the one they received. They heard the call, and they answered.
Quittez Pasteurs (Come, Leave Your Sheep)
3. “In your relationships with one another have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. (Philippians 2:5-7)
So on that holy night, the shepherds were just going about their work, making sure their sheep ate, drank, found rest and were safe from predators and thieves. To be a shepherd meant to stay alert, to keep watch. Just as the shepherds watched over their sheep, so also they watched for the long-expected Messiah.
When the angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds, they were terrified. Who wouldn’t be? These were people who worked under the heavens, and one night, from those same heavens, appeared something wholly unexpected.
“Do not be afraid,” the angel told them. Those words meant not only, “Don’t be afraid, right now,” but also, “Don’t be afraid, no matter what happens.” This baby, Jesus, would grow up, teach, heal, be crucified and rise again. Regardless of the future, the shepherds could look back on that holy night and remember the good news they received from the angel, news of great joy.
Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne
Shepherd’s Pipe Carol
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear (all sing)
4. “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. (Luke 1:52)
What do the shepherds do after this angelic encounter? Well, they don’t sit down and debate the existence of angels. They don’t have a theological discussion about whether this was the proper way for the Messiah to appear. Maybe the idea of him being wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger wasn’t so strange to these people who delivered many sheep in the dark of night.
Instead, they dropped everything. They dared to leave their sheep. They couldn’t have brought the whole herd. Perhaps they carried a sick one or an old one or a little lamb.
We don’t know how long the shepherds stayed in the makeshift stable. We do know they made an impact on Mary, who treasured these things and pondered them in her heart. But after the shepherds saw Jesus, they left and spread the word. They told everyone, and everyone was amazed.
That is where the story of the shepherds ends and our story begins. During this season of Advent, we, too, are watching for Jesus to come again. We came here tired, worried about our families, our community, our world. These cares are our sheep, and we often have trouble letting them go. Like the shepherds, our busy lives have been interrupted by singing. God’s announcement of the good news — to them and to us — didn’t come with a command. It was an invitation. How will we R.S.V.P.?
Shepherd’s Farewell to the Holy Family
5. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” (Psalm 23:1)
(the following to be said with Silent Night hummed underneath)
Jesus, the one the shepherds went to see, would later call himself the Good Shepherd. I’m sure he knew all about the first visitors to welcome him to this world. He knew that shepherds, however humble, had a glorious history stretching all the way back to the patriarchs, back to King David, back to the prophet Amos. The scriptures Jesus would have read included descriptions of God as a shepherd, including Isaiah 40 and Psalm 23.
Maybe those ancient words are puzzling to us, but they are the ones we turn to during hard times. When my mom died, words like: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me” made perfect sense.
Pull up a bale of hay and sit down for a spell. Listen. Allow yourself to worship a Shepherd.
He Shall Feed His Flock
6. “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14)
Christmas is God’s invitation to us, a giant birth announcement. If we seek him, we will find him, for he is anxious to be found. After Christmas is over and we go back to our regular lives, will that singing we heard have made any difference? Come January 25, will we still be changed?
Last Christmas was the first one without my mom. I didn’t feel like singing any Christmas hymns. It was a “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” kind of December. But I came to Canto, and I heard two of my favorite Christmas choral arrangements. For that one evening, I could be like the shepherds. I could praise and glorify God.
“Jesus Who Didst Ever Guide Me” from Christmas Oratorio by Bach
7. “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near. (Isaiah 55:6)
Thank you for coming tonight, for pausing to reflect on the shepherds in word and in song. This last carol, Adeste Fidelis, invites all the faithful to come and adore Him.
Maybe it’s easy for you to worship tonight. Your cup is full; you’re thankful. Maybe worship is more difficult, the way it was for me last year. Not all the circumstances in our lives lift just because it’s the Christmas season. There may still be unemployment or illness or other hard things. Still, there’s something about this season that makes us want to set aside our burdens and come and adore the one born the king of angels, the one the shepherds came to see.
May we follow their humble example. May we seek the Lord until we find him.