In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth 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 heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Over the years my long-suffering musicians, have learnt that I do like to play with tunes swapping what, at times, can be dreary to rather more interesting ones. For many years, I’ve watched congregations enjoy (not so sure about the musicians) singing While Shepherds Watched to the Yorkshire tune On Ilkley Moor Bar ‘tat. It works well (you can hear a choir teach and lead it here) , gives some gusto to the hymn and was one of the first to be set to that hymn. Winchester New – the tune normally used – was a rather later pairing. I like the tune Ilkley Moor not just because it’s rather fun to sing but because it speaks of the north, of common ordinary people.
Shepherds were the uncouth outsiders of their day. They had to be outside the villages with their sheep. They “keeping watch” over their flocks to see off wolves or thieves. Neither wolves nor thieves are great at observing the Law to rest once a week so Sabbath day work was necessary. To these outsiders, the message of God’s passionate, embodied, entry into the world is first announced. No royal announcement on the palace gates, no feasting, no flummery, not even an ode from the Poet Laureate. Instead the angels of heaven sing in joy and announce the news that God is now one of us to, as the hymn puts it, “certain poor shepherds.”
The nativity stories hammer home the point that God is to be found with the lost, the poor, the outsider, in the least expected places – smelling of His sheep. The irony is that Christianity has become far too respectable, clean, and moralistic. Pope Francis, early in his reign, exhorted priests to “be shepherds with the smell of sheep so that people can sense the priest is not just concerned with his own congregation, but is also a fisher of men.”* It seems to me that we all need, minister or member, to smell of the sheep that the Lord has given us to care for.