For Christmas. On young shepherdesses.
The Joy of Seeing Anew
Luke 2:1-20: In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 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 and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (NRSV)
Greetings to you and peace from God our Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Abiding Holy Spirit.
Luke is my favorite Gospel. There are many things I love about this book: the care and concern for the lowest members of society, the stories that witness to the activity and presence of God the Holy Spirit, the challenging stories that force us to question our relationship with money and power, and all the stories about women. Luke tells more stories about women than any other Gospel. In just the first two chapters, Luke tells us about the hospitality of Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, we hear the most detailed account we have about Mary, Jesus’ own mother, and we hear about Anna, a prophetess who recognized God in the infant Jesus. One biblical scholar even nick-named it the Gospel of Womanhood.
One of the great joys in life is learning something new about things that you already love. I got to have this experience when I visited St. John’s University and their newly opened gallery to provide a permanent viewing location for the St. John’s Bible. The St. John’s Bible is a modern illuminated Bible made entirely with traditional methods. Real vellum, hand made paints and inks, the entire text of the Bible hand-written. It took over 10 years to complete and it is a masterpiece. Illustrations in gold leaf and beautiful jewel tones. Perfectly detailed depictions of bees and butterflies alongside wrecked cars and computer code. If you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to look it up. Currently, the book is unbound so it can visit more places and more people. While I was moving from page to page in the gallery, I came to the painting that introduces the Gospel of Luke. I took in the beam of gold that cuts the picture in half representing God’s presence and power. I saw Mary in her traditional blue leaning over the manger to check on her baby, and I turned my attention to the information plaque next to the page. There, I was surprised to read that given what we know about ancient Jewish culture that it is quite likely the shepherds were actually adolescent girls. I turned back to the painting, the shepherds, shining in gold, reflecting God’s light, had young faces and were wearing head scarves much like Mary’s. One shepherd is even holding a child herself. I smiled at the thought that the Gospel of Luke might be even more a gospel that shows women than I realized. The creators of this masterful Bible, the likes of which we get to see new maybe once every 500 hundred years, thought it was so important to put it down on real vellum in gold leaf and handcrafted paints.
Now we’ll never know for certain who those shepherds actually were, but for this Christmas can we imagine that the shepherds in Luke’s gospel were adolescent girls and wonder together what they might have to teach us about God.
If those shepherds were in fact girls, then we see God’s faithfulness in the choice of the angels to share the good news that Jesus is born with them before anyone else. By coming to these shepherdesses first, God shows Themself to be faithful to Mary’s prophecy in her Magnificat that God “...has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly,; he has filled the hungry with good things, …” You’d be pretty hard-pressed to find someone who fit the idea of “lowly” more than these poor, adolescent, Jewish girls during the time of the Roman Empire. But God lifted them up, not a king or a business tycoon, but them by sharing with them the story of Jesus and making them the bearers of the Good News. They are encompassed in heavenly celebrations. They witness the angels sing praises to God. These girls are given their own divine encounter to treasure and share with others: that God is up to something new with Jesus’ birth, God is setting out to surprise the whole world with what has happened and what is going to happen. God means to be faithful to those who are hungry, who fear for their safety, who worry about their future, who are never taken seriously, because God included them, some lowly shepherd girls, in the telling of the story from the very first moment.
Next, if the shepherds were in fact girls, we see them come into town to search for and meet Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. Here, I see God’s surprising faithfulness too. God did not let Mary find herself alone when she had traveled so far and just accomplished one of the most difficult and rewarding things that a person can do, give birth and welcome a child, and away from family or friends. In a moment when Mary might have been stricken with loneliness, God sends Mary these girls, people who are just like her who understood her, to come around to support and celebrate her and her family. God did not let her be alone. These shepherd girls come into town, and find Mary and Joseph to exchange stories about how God has surprised them. They share their joy with each other. In this something new, they, the lowly ones, will not be used or forgotten anymore. With God, they are and will be treasured. They are and will be bearers of God’s story and faithfulness to each other and to the whole world.
Most nativity sets depict the shepherds as men. But this Christmas, since we’re imagining that the shepherds were girls and wondering what they might have to teach us about God, if you have a nativity set at home that has male shepherds, I’m inviting you to set them aside and find some female counterparts. Maybe you have some Christmas ornaments that are girls that could stand in as shepherds until your festivities are over. Maybe you have some dolls that you could use. Maybe you could dress your shepherds in Barbie clothes. Be creative. But most importantly, take some time to look at your new nativity scene. You might wonder if it does actually make a difference if they were shepherds or shepherdesses. You might wonder what happened as they went about their mundane lives after an experience like that. You might notice that Mary is not surrounded by only men and farm animals now, but has other females by her side to witness to God with her and now have their own stories of God’s unexpected and surprising faithfulness. In the end, whatever you notice, I hope you get to feel the joy of learning something new about a thing, or a person, that you already love. It is one of the great joys in life. It is one of the great joys of the Christmas season.