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The Shepherds of Bethlehem

Cynthia Pearl Maus

Luke, the Evangelist, tells us in his Gospel that "there were shepherds in the country abiding in the field, and keeping watch by night over their flock." These shepherds of Bethlehem knew just how cold the night could be and yet it was necessary for them to remain out-of-doors in order to protect their flocks from thieves and from wild beasts.

They were clothed in rough sheepskin pelts and they crouched around an open fire and looked up into the purple-blue night sky glittering with stars. The light of the moon was more resplendent than usual, for it lighted up all the hillside roundabout with a strange, white light.

Shepherds of Bethlehem

The annunciation to the shepherds
As they sat there on the ground they talked, perhaps of savage old King Herod, who was said to be dying of a dreadful disease, but who was still dangerous to anyone who might oppose his tyrant will. Or they may have been discussing the turbulent Galileans, who lived around Nazareth and who were continually trying to thwart the power of Rome, usually defeated and sold into slavery or put to cruel death along the roadway.

They may have been grumbling about the rich Jews who often robbed their own countrymen, or of doctors who pretended to heal and mostly failed, or of creditors who had those who owed them money and could not pay thrown into prison.

Some among them may have been in attendance at the Synagogue recently on the Sabbath day and heard the Priest read from their sacred Scriptures about a King who was yet to come, and who, when he did come, would rule the world with justice and righteousness. For, according to Prophecy, this King was not to be a savage warlike murderer, like Herod, but instead a Prince of Peace.

In those faraway days there was a good deal of talk about a King who would be descended from the Royal House of David, who would rescue the people from under the bondage of Rome. How incongruous their faith must have seemed that night in the light of the recent order of Emperor Caesar Augustus, who now required all Jews to return to the city of their birth to be enrolled (counted), and thus pour more gold in the form of taxes into the coffers of their oppressors, the Romans.

Such a dream was too fantastic to come true; for even if a King of their very own did appear, He would certainly be put to death by Herod who in fits of jealousy had killed even those of his own household.

As they talked, they were startled by an unusual brightness, which seemed to flood the entire hillside. And lo! the voice of an Angel of the Lord came to them out of the stillness of the night; and the glory of the Lord shown around about them, and they were filled with fear. The Angel said:

"Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior which is Christ, the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger."

Angels of Bethlehem, shepherds

"Glory to God on the highest"
And suddenly there was with this Heavenly Messenger, a multitude of angelic forms, praising God and chanting: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of goodwill."

The shepherds listened in astonished silence, and, after the Angels had gone away again into Heaven, they said one to another:

"Come, let us go now even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord hath made known to us.” And they followed the Star until it came and stood over where the young Child lay. The inn-keeper must have been surprised, yet he led those scantily-clad shepherds from the hills to the stable where the young Child lay sleeping in a manger. Mary, the young mother, was looking down at the tiny Infant she had just cradled there, while Joseph stood near by, marveling at the wonder of it all.

The shepherds drew near and worshiped the Christ Child in silence, and then told Mary and Joseph about the wonderful vision they had seen and what the Angel had said that had caused them to make their way to this cave-like stable near the inn.

The shepherds did not tarry long, for the day was breaking. But as they went out into the streets of that quiet city now so crowded with strangers from all parts of Palestine, they told everyone that this Child of Promise, about which their Sacred Writings spoke, had really come.

The Madonna Mother's heart also was filled with wonder and adoration, for she, like the shepherds, had been visited by an Angel, who had told her that the Son she was to bear would be the Son of the Most High God, and that He would sit on the throne of David, and that of His kingdom there would be no end.

Taken from Cynthia Pearl Maus, The World's Great Madonnas,
New York and London: Harper & Bros. Publishers, 1947, pp. 195-197
Posted December 17, 2011

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