Voices of Faith: Why were the shepherds first to experience Christ?

The ultimate outsiders

The Rev. Joe Nassal, Catholic priest at Precious Blood Center in Liberty, Mo.: Early in his papacy, Pope Francis admonished priests and bishops to be “shepherds with the smell of the sheep,” to come down from pedestals to serve and stand with the poor.

Shepherds were the first to receive the birth announcement – not the insiders, not the royalty, not the government officials – because they were the ultimate outsiders.

Remember, the Christmas story says Mary and Joseph were in town to register for the census. There was no need for shepherds to register because they didn’t count.

The shepherds were homeless, the ones whose smell – not many opportunities to bathe – and reputation for rugged individualism and rigid commitment to their flocks forced them to move to the outskirts of society.

“Do not be afraid,” the angel tells them, and gives them a sign that must have made them feel at home: “You will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”

Shepherds often sought shelter from inclement weather in barns and sheds. They probably slept on bales of hay, keeping one eye open for a predator sneaking up on their unsuspecting sheep.

The child we celebrate at Christmas would grow up and identify himself as the Good Shepherd and would spend his life seeking out and saving the lost, until he was crucified outside the gates of the Holy City, the place where those who didn’t count were left to die.

The shepherds were the first to experience Jesus because the crib and the cross are inseparable.

The first evangelists

The Rev. Scott Gordon, pastor, Claycomo Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo.: “And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them … ‘I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.’ ” (Luke)

That the shepherds were nearby might lead us to conclude that is why they were the first to be told of Jesus’ birth, but I believe there is more to their inclusion than that. Having said that, I do believe God’s plan, which has always had human ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20-21) of his good news (Matthew 28:18-20), included these shepherds as the first evangelists of the Gospel.

The shepherds also represent for us the picture of the far-reaching nature of God’s love.

From the example of these people on the fringes of society – shepherds occupied the lowest place in their culture – to people with extensive education and financial resources – the Magi certainly held a more prominent place than shepherds – we see evidence that God’s offer of salvation transcends any barriers we might think impossible.

When we read in the Bible that “whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16), we can trust that promise because our Lord has already demonstrated that his grace reaches anyone, anywhere at any time.

This good news is the reason we as Christians wish everyone a Merry Christmas again this year.