Advent Meditation: The Shepherds’ Visit

adoration of the shepherds ZURBARÁNThe candle for the third Sunday of Advent is often designated the “Shepherds’ Candle.” This is in recognition of the first announcement of the birth of the Messiah to a group of shepherds who were on duty outside the village of Bethlehem. This story is told only by Luke, who gives clues elsewhere of having access to tradition from eyewitnesses to the Gospel events. One of the sources for Luke seems to have been Mary herself, either directly from her or from a reliable tradition that came from her. I have found it helpful to see Luke 1-2 as almost being told by Mary herself, and thereby including details that were important to her. Twice, Luke tells his readers that Mary “treasured up all these things.” This could be translated, “Mary preserved these things,” giving the sense of the preservation of tradition.

So what did Mary think when these shepherds showed up? This all happened the same night, probably within a few hours. The midwife was probably still there, cleaning up and making sure everything was OK. and that the baby was resting comfortably. Mary, exhausted, was excited and drained at the same time. Joseph was like any new father, wanting to help but not knowing what to do. And then these uninvited, unexpected shepherds show up, telling a fantastic tale of angels appearing to them. Mary and Joseph don’t think they are crazy, though, for both of them have been visited by angels. Mary would have asked, “What did they say to you? Surely they said something, what was it?”

The shepherds had those words stamped on their hearts, and they repeated the angelic message for the first time to Mary and her husband:

Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.

While good, none of this was news to Mary. She already knew her son was the Messiah. She was the one who had wrapped him and laid him in the improvised cradle. But the shepherds had something else to tell. The angel who spoke to them first was joined by a host who were saying (singing) a praise song:

Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.

There is an interesting twist in the story here. The “favored one” earlier in Luke was Mary herself as announced by the angel:

Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.

The shepherds are the bearers of a message that Mary needed to hear: God was still favoring her. God was giving her peace (shalom), the blessings of a life dedicated to him. It must have seemed that everything had gone wrong for Mary in the last 24 hours. They had arrived in Bethlehem and could not find proper accommodations. Her labor pains began and she was not ready. But babies do not wait, even the Messiah. Mary surely wished for her mother, her aunts, the women of her village. They were not available. We can assume that a local midwife was summoned, a stranger to Mary. Then our surprising, unpredictable God used these ragged, dirty, smelly, sleep-deprived shepherds to tell her the angels’ message: Peace dear daughter. Peace. God has found favor with you. And in her heart and perhaps with her tired voice, Mary may have been the first to sing the angels’ song:

Glory to God in the highest. Glory to God. All Glory to God. May he reign forever!

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

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