What child is this, who, laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet while shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the king, whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring Him laud, the babe, the son of Mary!
How many times have I sung this song over the years? Only yesterday, as we huddled in song around the Christmas tree for morning prayer, did these words launch me into renewed awe of the Christmas story. What wonder in the coming of a King! What love – that God would step down from His throne on high to dwell with us in the flesh.
Whom shepherds guard.
According to Scripture, the shepherds are the only people (apart from Mary & Joseph) who were present to honor Jesus at his birth. Contrary to our usual image of the Nativity, the wise men weren’t there. And, though an angel brought news to the shepherds that they would “find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger,” there is no report of an angel visibly present at the stable. In fact, it says the angels had gone away from the shepherds into heaven after having delivered this message. I’ve no doubt that God and the heavenly host had eyes upon this scene, but there is no report of them being visually present. We are left with the shepherds. There may have been others who found no room in the inn and witnessed the early hours of Jesus’ life. We aren’t told.
So, why shepherds? How did they gather with this new family? Shepherds care for sheep. They oft would look upon a newborn lamb. Familiar with this beginning, they also knew the end – sacrifice. Who else could rightly come and adore? And, who else would be more qualified to offer protection and care for lambs? It seems right that they would come and care for this Lamb – this One who would be the final sacrifice. With Bethlehem bursting at the seams and strangers in town for the census, I think God would look on these new parents with baby child – His child – and give the protection of the shepherd. Scripture doesn’t explicitly talk of the shepherds guarding the Christ Child, but I can only now imagine them as doing so. (I don’t know what truth might be behind some of these speculations, but they are intriguing thoughts regarding the shepherds.)
As morning breaks, this little fellowship adores a newborn King. After having seen Him, the shepherds went and told the story, making it widely known. I wonder what came of these shepherds in the days, weeks, and years that ensued? How often did they return to see Jesus? Did they follow the life of this little one? What stories did they re-tell as they tended the flocks?
I’m reimagining the Nativity this year. It’s something nearer to this.