We invite you to return every day during Advent for this devotional series
Listen to today’s accompanying audio track. Note: This same track will play December 15, 16, and 17:
There Were Shepherds Abiding In The Field
“There were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night.”
Long before mega-churches ever imagined Christmas spectacles of flying angels, live camels, thousands of twinkling lights, and snow falling gently on the audience, our little country church proudly presented our Christmas pageant. Dressed in a bathrobe and towel round my head, I played a shepherd. Three of the bigger boys got to be wise men, wearing turbans that kept coming loose, bearing rich gifts wrapped with gold aluminum foil. It all seemed so magical to me, singing Silent Night as each child received a brown paper bag filled with ribbon candy, chocolate kisses, one fruitcake, and an orange. Except for the fruitcake, it felt to me like Christmas was supposed to.
But a look at the first Christmas and nothing seems the way it’s supposed to be. A pregnant teen far from home, when contractions begin and her water breaks. Her fiancé’s ancestral town has not even a room for her or her baby. And when the baby comes, she lays Him in a feeding trough for cattle.
Then there are those shepherds. Although we idealize and romanticize the shepherds, they were among the most despised people of their day. New Testament scholar, Joachim Jeremias, says of the shepherd in Jesus’ time:
There is not a more disreputable occupation than that of a shepherd. Most of the time, they were dishonest and thieving. They led their herds onto other people’s land and pilfered the produce of the land” (Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus).
All the people looked down on shepherds, thinking of them as thieves who roamed the countryside, mixing up what was “mine” and what was “thine”. People were warned never to buy from shepherds because they would be buying stolen goods. Shepherds were regarded with such suspicion that Jewish law forbade them giving testimony in criminal and civil cases.
The long weeks shepherds spent in the fields with their sheep meant they did not attend synagogue or join in temple worship. Their work made it difficult to keep the laws of ceremonial cleanliness, the feast days, and ritual washings. Such negligence meant that they were prohibited from entering the temple courtyard, being labeled “unclean”.
Yet, astonishingly, it is to such men that God sends angels to proclaim Messiah’s birth. It is such men that God wants to be the first to hear the birth of His Son. Not the high priest or scribes in the temple! Not the Roman governor or even King Herod! But shepherds!
The shepherds in the Christmas story remind us all of the nameless, faceless, forgotten people who so desperately need good news from God. Messiah’s mother, Mary, sang joyfully of such a grace for lowly and broken people: “God hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:52-53).
The first words of Messiah’s ministry are His reading in the synagogue from the Isaiah scroll, and declaring the prophet’s words fulfilled in Him:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised (Luke 4:18).
Such is Messiah’s grace, not only for shepherds, but for fishermen, prostitutes, tax-collectors, and any who know their need for Him.
Today’s second accompanying audio track.
Handel inserts a musical interlude that Charles Jennens would not have expected when he supplied the Biblical texts. For this movement comes not from the Scripture text, but from the world of opera. By including this piece Handel wants to make a change of scenery, moving from the prophecies of Messiah’s coming, to fulfillment in Messiah’s birth.
The curtain rises on a peaceful, quiet night on the hillside as shepherds are playing soft music to pass the night. Handel calls this instrumental interlude “Pifa” to suggest the “Pifferare”, or shepherd bagpipers in Italy who would pipe in the villages during Advent (Pife is a shortening of the Italian Pifferare). Handel had lived in Italy and perhaps remembered this old Advent custom.
Handel employs a Baroque period device of holding notes long to mimic the sound of bagpipes. The violins and a viola add a simple melody.
The piece is also called “Pastoral Symphony”, as it evokes a peaceful, pastoral scene. Its sweet lullaby on strings carries us back to that first Christmas as shepherds played quietly by a fire. One might even hear in the melody an echo of shepherd boy David, who played his harp on these same hills, dreaming of a Son of David who would be born. Calvin Stapert says this piece is intentionally “devoid of artistic sophistication” which is well-suited for “depicting simple shepherds”.
With this music Handel wants to prepare us for the breathtaking announcement of Messiah’s birth. The gentle melody invites even simple folks like shepherds to come near. The soprano solo voice is saved for this moment in the oratorio in order to highlight the angel’s announcement.
- What do you sense that God might be saying to you in today’s Scripture text and music from Messiah?
- What do you want to say to God?
- Now take a few moments to be still in God’s presence.