Welcome to Bethlehem, the “place of bread” or “place of meat”. Bethlehem was part of the bread basket for all of Judah. It was where shepherds had been watching flocks, long before written history. We often see great pictures of Jesus as the Good Shepherd carrying the lamb over his shoulder. We have romanticized the idea of quiet shepherds watching sheep in fields. The reality is that shepherds, throughout history have not really been considered all that great. They are really more like a necessary nuisance.
If we go way back to the book of Genesis, to when Joseph brought his family to live with him in Egypt, Joseph told his family to say they were shepherds because “shepherds are detestable to Egyptians,” (Gen. 46:34). It wasn’t just Egyptians. Jerusalem was only about five miles from the small farming town of Bethlehem, and it made a prime place to raise the sheep for the continued sacrifice in the Temple of God. The nation of Israel and the Priesthood wanted the sheep for the sacrifice, and for meals. However, no one wanted the smelly shepherds living next to them.
I remember several years ago there was a history show called “Dirty Jobs of History.” On one episode they covered the life of shepherds. They mentioned some of the ancient shepherd work, but focused mainly on Middle-Aged European shepherds. Well into the Renaissance era, shepherds were a necessity of European society. They were also looked at as brutes, dirty, and unworthy of coming into normal places of society. In fact it was said that they would bury a shepherd with a lock of wool in their pocket. They were told to show it to Saint Peter, and then they would be forgiven for missing Sunday Mass and working on Holy days, when the rest of society celebrated and feasted.
I grew up in a farming community, and we have a few cattle ourselves. I remember the cruel treatment of some of the kids at school toward farm kids who had to help with chores before school, because sometimes they would come to school smelling from the barn work. Many people in our Western society have never stepped foot onto a farm of any kind to realize the hard work, the dirty work, and yes the smell that it takes to put the clean meats and vegetables on our tables. The truth is that most people don’t even want to think about it.
What is amazing in the the story of the Christ, the Messiah coming into our world, is that he wasn’t born in the capital city. He wasn’t born to the appointed king’s family, or the the family of one of the priests serving in the city. Instead he is born in a city of farmers. The fact is at this time of Advent, small rural towns, like our own here in Clifton, have more in common with the Christmas Account than the cities of the world.
What’s more, the news wasn’t announced to the priests who served at the temple, or to the King. It wasn’t even announced to the families of the bakers or salespeople living among the crowded capital city. No, it was announced to the shepherds. Shepherds, the rejects of the populace.
Who would announce or bring such news to such a place. Who would go to the least of society with the greatest news in history. God would. This should not be a surprise in Jewish history. After all, their greatest King who ever ruled before had come from the same small shepherding town. He had raised sheep, and been on of those smelly hard working shepherds himself. David. David is the king whom all Israel looked to as their greatest, and yet he came from the same fields of Bethlehem where the shepherds heard the proclamation of Jesus Birth.
This shows us that God wants to come to all people in all walks of life. There is no position that is too low. We may feel our part in serving God is worthless, yet we are reminded that God chose simple shepherds to be the first preachers of the news of His Son’s birth.
May we never feel that we are too unworthy of God’s love and blessings. Christ came to all of us, because God has always been for all of us.