The Gospel of Luke (2: 8-18) tells the story of the announcement of the birth of Jesus to local shepherds and their visit to the Holy Family. “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not; for behold I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapping in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which has come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told to them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.”
Theologians have often remarked on the importance of the choice of shepherds as the first humans to be told of the birth of the Saviour. Shepherds were notoriously dirty, infamous for their neglect of ritual cleanliness of body and utensils; their testimony, like that of thieves and extortionists, was not acceptable in court. The angels’ visit to these debased characters seems to stress the universality of the Christmas message and the social inversion implicit in the Incarnation — the King of the Universe born in an animal shelter; the good news given first to shepherds.
This exaltation of the humble has been the subject of drama and song ever since. Church liturgies have long honoured shepherds; the Office of the Shepherds at Rouen re-enacted the story before the midnight mass. In Poland the midnight mass is called the Shepherds’ Mass and shepherds’ pipes are often played during the service. In the south of France special masses see lambs brought in by sherpherds and placed near the altar. Pastoral drama, stories of the shepherds’ journey to see the Holy Family, is a big part of the Christmas season around the world. In Italy shepherds come down from the hills before Christmas to play their bagpipes before shrines, in churches and on the streets. Carols that celebrate the role of shepherds include the English “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night”, the French “Berger, Seccoue ton Sommeil Profond” and the German “Stille Nacht”.
The fourteenth-century mystic St Bridget of Sweden whose spiritual revelations about the Nativity were important in shaping medieval depictions of the events said that when the shepherds first encountered the Holy Family they wanted to know the sex of the child “for angels had announced to them that the saviour of the world had been born, and they had not said it was a saviouress”. When Mary showed them that the baby was a boy they rejoiced and adored the child.
Today Christmas Eve celebrations in Bethlehem are held in Shepherds’ Field where the angels made their announcement but various denominations disagree over the exact site.