During the Advent season, I have been reading “The Secret of the Bethlehem Shepherds,” a new book by Fr. Dwight Longenecker published by Sophia Institute Press. I’ve long admired Fr. Longenecker’s columns and commentary, so I was excited to pick up this short book. It is full of insight into the importance of the shepherds in the narrative of Jesus’ birth. As we come to the Fourth Sunday of Advent and leap immediately into our celebration of Christmas, the presence of the shepherds and their significance is very much on my mind.

When we look at Bethlehem, we are reminded that it is the City of David. The paradigmatic King of Israel was born and raised in Bethlehem. Before becoming king, how did David occupy his time? He was a shepherd, caring for his father’s flocks. As king, what was his role for Israel? To care for the flock of God, the Chosen People. In King David, we see the connection between the shepherd and the king. This city (and by the time Jesus was born it had diminished to more of a village, so “little town of Bethlehem” is a phrase that rings true!) is prophesied as the place from which the greatest of all kings will come. From Bethlehem, God will raise up the true king of Israel, the ultimate successor of David.

Bethlehem is not only the city of kings, it is also a town of shepherds. In the hills and pastures around Bethlehem, shepherds still care for sheep to this day. At the time Jesus was born, sheep were a necessary part of Jewish worship, as sacrifices of lambs and sheep were offered in the Temple in Jerusalem day after day, and especially at Passover. The Passover lamb reminded Israel of God’s saving power rescuing them from slavery, and as they ate the Passover lamb, the Jewish people were reminded further of God’s providential care for them. Where did the lambs for this sacrifice come from? Fr. Longenecker points out that many of the lambs came from the shepherds of Bethlehem. Though the shepherds seemingly occupy a poor place in the social strata of Israel, their work is in fact integral to the entire worshiping life of the nation. It is to the shepherds who provide the sacrificial lambs for Israel that the news of the birth of Jesus, the Lamb of God, whose flesh is true food for the life of, not just Israel but the whole world, is first announced. 

The shepherds understand the sacrifices of the Temple and the idea of the Lamb of God in a very immediate way. For them the lamb is no mere theory or pie in the sky thinking. Rather, they know the value of each and every sheep. They know the value of keeping the vigil watch over their flock. The sheep native to and most common in the area around Bethlehem have lambs in the winter, and so the shepherds must keep watch for the possible birth of a lamb, lest that newborn lamb suffer any harm that would make it unfit for use in Temple worship.  And so it is that the shepherds keep watch for lambs, and are instead rewarded with the sight of the true Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. 

We have kept watch over these last few weeks, preparing for the birth of Jesus. As we now celebrate His birth in our world, let us place ourselves with the shepherds and go in haste to greet Him, to rejoice at this great sign of life, and experience the awe they felt at being invited into this great mystery.