They didn’t get invited anywhere very often. In fact, in many people’s eyes they were virtually outcasts. Shepherds weren’t nice polite, genteel city folk. Sheep herding was a rough, violent dirty business. You didn’t get hired to guard the temple flocks by being smooth and scholarly like a priest. Suavity and refinement were highly regarded in the temple; if a man wanted preferment and promotion there he needed a scholarly mind, smooth subtle speech, and clean, well kept hands fit to handle the scrolls. But the priests were not above getting men they otherwise despised to do their dirty work for them. Once shepherding had been respected: Abraham had flocks and herds, and King David had been a shepherd. But that was a thousand years ago, and Israel no longer wanted men who had been trained in battle by defending the flocks since they were children; this was a different age, the age of the Pax Romana; and the watchword now was peaceful coexistence, not resistance to the oppressor.
So the shepherds were marginalised more than ever, even little villages like Bethlehem were getting too sophisticated for such frontier men, such throwbacks to a more primitive age. They appreciated the lambs for their sacrifices and their Passover feasts, but that didn’t mean they had to appreciate the men who protected them from wild beasts and all manner of human thievery, the men who cared for the ill and the wounded creatures and went searching for those who went missing, knowing that every animal that could not be accounted for would be claimed from their wages.
Tonight, though, it was peaceful out on the hills. The spring night was mild; the sheep dozed or nibbled on the fresh new grass, and the stars were frost-sharp in the sky. It felt as if the whole world was at rest, and they were glad to gather round their own small fire, content in each other’s company and the deep silence of the darkest hour. They might not be very welcome at the temple, but this was a night on which even outcasts could imagine that they belonged, and that the embrace of God was wider than that of those who spoke in His name.
But then their peace turned to terror, for it seemed that the night sky was suddenly torn apart by an intensity of light too much for this mortal world, and they hid their faces in fear. But there was one who stood in the midst of the glory and spoke to them. “Do not be afraid,” he said, “there is nothing to fear. It is good news, news of unimaginable joy for all people, that I have come to bring you. For to you,” (and he paused and looked at them, so there could be no mistaking that they were the ones he meant) “to you there is born this day, in Bethlehem, the city of David, your Saviour, the Messiah, the Lord. You will find him wrapped in swaddling bands and lying in a feed trough.” And, before their astonished eyes, the whole sky was alight with angels, and the beauty of their songs of praise overwhelmed the shepherd’s hearts.