Of all the things and people to be present at the birth of Jesus Christ, there were shepherds! I would probably have been more surprised if there were not shepherds. After all, David was a shepherd boy from Bethlehem. David taught us to pray, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” (Ps 23:1). And Christ fulfills David.
Imagine the life of a shepherd, his days spent under the vast expanse of open sky, hills and valleys stretching out before him. St. Patrick, a shepherd himself, was no stranger to this way of life. And then, on that glorious night, the angel of the Lord announced the good news of Christ’s birth to shepherds in the fields around Bethlehem. Patrick, too, found God while pasturing sheep.
The shepherd of shepherds will lead the way through unknown paths of life. He sent his angel to lead shepherds to him. And find him they did. But regardless of what comes, each step can be taken with the assurance that the Incarnate Lord walks alongside them. In solitary pastures and on stormy nights, every shepherd will pray, “Christ with me.“
The shepherds of Bethlehem, who lived as one with their flock, discovered on Christmas night a shepherd who lives as one with them. Their lives entwined with their sheep, they find a savior whose life will be inseparable from theirs. “Christ before me,” the shepherd humbly prays, kneeling before the infant king’s crib.
Christ is there when the shepherd rises in the crisp morning air, when he sleeps beneath the starry canopy, when he breaks bread at the end of a weary day’s toil. In all these moments, “Christ behind me, Christ within me” becomes a whispered assurance that the incarnate God is there — in waking and sleeping, in moments of rest and labor. “Christ beneath me, Christ above me …”
The shepherd’s life mirrors the encompassing nature of the Incarnation. Christ isn’t a distant figure but an ever-present companion, woven into every aspect of the shepherd’s life. “Christ on my right, Christ on my left …”
Set out in our hearts
This discovery of the presence of Christ is not hypothetical. Luke’s Gospel tells us, “They made known the message that had been told them about this child. All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds” (Lk 2:17-18). And just as God called the shepherds, he calls us.
“Exactly the same sign has been given to us,” says Pope Benedict XVI. “We too are invited by the angel of God, through the message of the Gospel, to set out in our hearts to see the child lying in the manger.”
Weakness and sin and all, he calls us. Like a shepherd, he calls us. He calls us to come to him, to see the babe among the animals and know that he is near. “Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down …”
The mystery of Christmas is the mystery of discovering Christ among us and carrying him with us from this day on. Never do we have to be alone. Never do we have to fear. Never do we have to agonize about the way we should go. Love has come and love will lead us. “Christ when I arise …”
And, please God, may others see his love in me. “Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me …”
This Christmas, I’m praying the Breastplate of St. Patrick at the manger. And I hope you will too. Together we can think of the shepherds, and in so doing, may we find again the Good Shepherd, who first revealed his love in the manger.
Father Patrick Briscoe, O.P., is a Dominican friar and the editor of Our Sunday Visitor.