He was born into the silence of this world. Because there was no room for him in a proper house the night he was born, the Gospel of Luke reports, he was born of his mother with Joseph nearby out there in the stable with the animals. Probably there was no one interested. That was the silence of that night. Who would care, anyway? Just one more peasant child, and who celebrates or notices or marks the birth of yet another peasant arriving in this world? Have you ever heard a prayer of thanks for the children born in a United Nations refugee camp? The children of peasants are always born into silence.
It remained so silent that God in heaven decided to break that silence himself and let a few people know about it. So he sent an angel to the people who were nearest to the birth. He sent first one angel, and then a whole slew of angels, to the shepherds. That wasn’t the most obvious choice God could have made.
We have beautiful songs about those shepherds abiding in their fields by night, and the angels who visited them, songs filled with sentiment and warmth. We’ve even invented a legendary mythology about them. Shepherds are humble and kind; real sweethearts, gentle guys tending sheep as they do; and that littlest shepherd plays a fine drum, doesn’t he?
Reality is often different. Shepherds, on the whole, were regarded as coarse men, more like the Teamsters Union in the 1970s than the alabaster figurines on the mantle. First century shepherds, says Jeremais citing Philo, were regarded as “unpleasant and inglorious.” They were untrustworthy loners, unsettled, essentially homeless. Along with pickpockets, shepherds were forbidden to give testimony in Jewish courts.
But the angels went to them. Angels got sent to a Teamsters convention, sent to shepherds who had no place in this world to call their home. How about that? God found people more inglorious than peasants and sent them angels to sing Christ’s birth. The silence of his birth was broken by the glory of God shining on homeless nobodies.
Jesus came as a stranger, uncelebrated and unremarked, and he was greeted only by other strangers, strangers who could recognize in themselves a restless need only Christ could fulfill. Isn’t each of us to a degree a stranger in this world too, alone, unsettled? No? You don’t think so?
Then tell me: Do you feel completely at home with your relationships? Do you feel at home when you read Time or Newsweek or watch that Eyewitness News segment about another murder, another holiday traffic death? Do you feel at home when you look around and see that guy at the on-ramp with his sign, “Please help”? The oncology chemo schedule, how’s that working? Do you feel at home, even at home?
Don’t we each greet this world with wariness; a caution, a fear?
That’s why angels went to shepherds, why they went to people like them, people who turn out in large degree to be people like us, people uneasy and uncertain and a little adrift and a little lost. Maybe that’s why we allshepherds, you, mefeel more at home with him than with anyone anywhere else.
Russell E. Saltzman is a former pastor of the North American Lutheran Church whose latest book is Speaking of the Dead. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.