We don’t think or speak much about the shepherds at Christmas time, except perhaps to be glad for the addition of parts to the Christmas pageant. They seem like such peripheral characters. The reasons for the angel’s appearances to Mary and Joseph, and even to Zaccariah (ever wonder if the angel came to Elizabeth??) seem quite clear. The Magi seem to add to the plot, bringing gifts from afar and representing the universality of the event of Christ’s birth. But what do we make of these shepherds?
Henry Ossawa Tanner, perhaps with the understanding of a black artist the son of a black preacher, shows us in these painting. The shepherds count because, with regard to everything else, they do not count. Barely seen in the immensity of the hills surrounding Bethlehem (without the light from the angel, who could even notice them?), they are almost part of the country-side, like the hills and trees. The city can be seen in the background, larger and busier with its walls and its roads. It seems cut off, something separate.
Yet here is this angel, coming to them – to them! – to tell them about the birth of a savior and a king. The angel says they have a part in this play, that they should join in the celebration. Only the shepherds, as far as I can tell, were able to hear and see the angels’ own celebration, their song and their joy.
Although Jesus grew up in a town, the son of a builder or carpenter, it is the image and metaphor of shepherding that he invokes continuously throughout his ministry. Caring for the sheep, guarding the sheep, seeking out the lost sheep – all of these allusions speak to some deep and abiding link with shepherds.
Who else sang with the angels on the night of his birth?