Reflection on the figures of the shepherds and the wise men
Here’s a reflection I was asked to write for an Advent vocation discernment Zoom meeting on the theme of Shepherds + Wise Men.
The Shepherds + Wise Men (Compass in Advent - 18/12/20)
Each group, in its own way and in its own context, responded to a call from God. We find the story of of the Shepherds in Lk 2 and the Wise Men in Mt 2.
The Shepherds (Lk 2:8-20)
It was not the most trusted profession, so why are they reported as being the first to witness the birth of this Saviour?
They were considered unclean and outside the law, not the poorest of the poor, but certainly mistrusted, sometimes making use of other people’s land to graze their sheep.
But, as such, they chime well with Luke’s emphasis in his Gospel, where Jesus states that he came to save outcasts and sinners, people on the peripheries, as Pope Francis would say, people who would have been relatively uneducated. And yet, God saw something in them that he could work with.
For those who may feel that God is calling them to a specific vocation in life, whatever that may be, we might feel initially “Why me? What does God see in me? I’m no better a person than anyone else.” But, maybe God sees something in us, a spark that could one day ignite into a flame, a potential passion that could be put to his purpose. Think of St. Paul… his skill at tracking down and trapping followers of Jesus and how that skill got flipped into one for catching a different kind of fish in a different way. He seemed to have a skill for reading people and being able to pitch his preaching and communication appropriately, but he was initially nobody’s idea of the ideal apostle.
Back to the shepherds… Another interpretation of their presence in Luke’s Gospel notes that many of the flocks near Bethlehem, which is only six miles from Jerusalem, were intended for temple sacrifices, in which case one can see in the shepherds an entirely different symbolism. Jesus came as the Lamb of God, to die for the sins of the world, and it would seem it was to the keepers of temple flocks that his birth was first announced, asking them to bear witness to the birth of a very special lamb of sacrifice. Symbolically, Jesus became another lamb added to their flock.
The Jewish Mishnah text suggests that not only were such flocks kept near Jerusalem to provide lambs for Temple sacrifice, but that the shepherds who tended the flocks may have been priests themselves, or the very least employed by the priests to tend their flocks on priestly land.
Oh, and by the way, what happened to the sheep that the shepherds abandoned in the fields? Who knows! But, their response to the angel’s message seems to have been instant and unflinching. They had been keeping guard over their sheep, but such was their trust in the angel - whom they instinctively interpreted as being sent by the Lord - that they simply abandoned their duty and went down to Bethlehem.
The angel had said, “For today in the city of David a Saviour has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant…” (Lk 2:11-12)
… “you will”… Did they have a choice? Without opening the whole “freewill vs. determinism” can of worms, they must have been chosen because of a predisposition to trust the words of such a messenger. Just like Mary and Joseph would have been chosen for similar reasons relating to their characters and predispositions. Other shepherds might have been able to rationalise a reason to stay with their sheep, or maybe just send one of their number to investigate, but no, it seems that they all went in faith and trust.
But, even with such a predisposition, they still had to engage their own wills to follow the “you will” command of the angel. And so it is with us. Each day as a religious, myself and my confrères, we reconsecrate ourselves to God through the opening prayer of our Daily Office, e.g. “Dear Father, I abandon myself entirely to you. Do with me as you will…” (the soon to be canonised Blessed Charles de Foucauld). And so, discerning, and then following a calling from God is an act of the will, a choice to align my will with that of God. There has to be, at the same time, a genuine letting go of self and a taking up of the self to align it to the path God has presented to us, just as the shepherds let go of their sheep in total trust, taking up the path to Bethlehem, a town, a place where they might not get a warm welcome. But, they believed that if God was genuinely calling them then surely both their sheep and themselves would come to no harm.
In Christina Rosetti’s words set to music in the carol “In the Bleak Midwinter”, it says
“If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb…”
It’s possible that the shepherds would have brought such a gift. There would have been a touching symbolism in such a gift, in giving a lamb to parents who would later on have to give their own “lamb” away to be sacrificed. And there’s an irony in that their lamb would render animal sacrifice in the Temple unnecessary.
To finish this first part with more words from the aforementioned carol, the most important, most precious gift we can give to the Lord is the gift of ourselves:
“Yet, what can I give him? Give my heart.”
The Wise Men (Mt 2:1-12)
If the Shepherds were not quite the “poor and lowly” peasants of popular representation, they were certainly not among the elite of Jewish society, whereas the wise men were people who were received by royalty. They were members of the intellectual and social elite, people of standing and probably some considerable wealth, bearing in mind the gifts that they brought with them.
3 gifts, but were there necessarily 3 wise men? We don’t know… Or were they Kings? There are many legends and myths surrounding these mysterious figures, but what we know for sure is that the Greek word “magoi”/magi comes from a Persian word that was used to refer to eastern sages who observed the heavens for signs and omens, a mixture of modern day astronomers and astrologers, although the word was also used to describe magicians and charlatans. However, the former meaning is the most likely.
The star itself… was it a supernova, or perhaps the conjunction of planets similar to what is happening this week with Jupiter and Saturn? Whatever it was, something must have simultaneously touched and moved their hearts for them to set off like that.
One theory suggests that though they were probably not Jewish themselves, they may have come from an element of Persian society - possibly a Persian priesthood - sympathetic to Judaism and Jewish traditions, following the exile of the Jewish people into Babylon, subsequently to become Persia after being invaded itself (over 500BC). That doesn’t explain, however, why they might have been so highly motivated as to leave the comfort of home and their trappings of wealth to undertake such a journey to venerate the future King of a rival nation.
It is possible that they were familiar with the prophecy in Numbers (24:17)
“I behold him, but not near; a Star shall come out of Jacob; a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel…”
and also familiar with the belief that was apparently held by some in antiquity, that celestial events were linked with the lives and deaths of rulers. Some biblical scholars therefore believe that Matthew’s story of the star exists not to inform readers about a specific astronomical event, but to support claims that he is making about Jesus as King and Messiah.
Either way, there are, of course, numerous messianic prophecies throughout the Jewish scriptures (e.g. in Isaiah and the Psalms) but it seems that the wise men were unaware of the prophecy in Micah 5:2 which Herod’s scribes quote to him. The wise men had presumed that the new King would be found in Jerusalem, but the scribes’ quotation showed that this was not the expectation of the Jews:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah: because out of you will come a leader who will shepherd My people Israel.” (Mc 5:2)
It is interesting to note that the wise men ask
“Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” (Mt 2:2)
but when Herod subsequently speaks to the scribes to find an answer to the wise men’s query, he asks them
“where the Christ was to be born”
i.e. the Messiah. So, Herod understood the wise men’s query as referring to the prophecies of the Jewish Messiah King, hence his subsequent anxiety, fear and violent slaughter of so many innocent first born.
But how aware were the wise men themselves of this messianic prophecy? Not so aware as to know that he should be born in Bethlehem, apparently.
All of this makes me think that the star in the heavens that they followed, according to the story, was an outward manifestation of an inner revelation: a dream, a voice, etc… We don’t hear of them seeing receiving information in a dream until after visiting the new born King (Mt 2:12), but that suggests the possibility of inner vision being granted to them prior to setting off on their journey also, and with that illumination the request to look out for a particular celestial event to guide them. Maybe this then led them to research in Jewish literature information about how such a “star” in the sky might relate to their inner illumination.
Whatever it was that led these wise men to set off on this unexpected trek, we can say that:
- they were obviously courageous, as well as being learned and were also men of faith with an openness to the divine, to the transcendent. Their trust in whatever message was communicated to them led them to set foot on a perilous journey without knowing where it would lead them.
- they needed others (Herod’s scribes) to help them get a fuller picture of what or who they were being called to follow and these wise, learned men had the humility to ask for such assistance.
And so, what can we learn from looking at these two sets of characters as regards our own discernment journeys?
1) God calls according to the potential he sees in each of us, who we can become, rather than who we are at present.
2) He values an open, generous heart, a willingness to trust and to set off without knowing where he is going to lead us. Therefore, don’t expect to have a full picture of what responding to a call might look like at any given time.
3) Following his call requires an act of will to align ours with God’s, to put one foot in front of the other, even though, like St. Peter at the end of John’s Gospel, we may end up being led where we would otherwise not have wanted to go.
4) The picture will always be incomplete, but that’s ok. It means that the journey isn’t finished and that there will always be potential for growth, even for those for whom years, or even decades, may have passed since their first response to a call.
5) As the picture is always incomplete, be open to the wisdom of others who may be able to provide the next piece of your jigsaw. A call is never given to a person in isolation.
6) A sign that a call is genuine is the level of inner joy and fulfilment responding to it gives you (though that feeling may wax and wane over time). It’s said of the shepherds that they
“went back glorifying and praising God.” (Lk 2:20)
As regards the wise men,
“they returned to their country by a different way.” (Mt 2:12)
symbolising that they too had been changed by their experience.
Finally, I’ll point out a link for you to think about between the two sets of characters that we’ve looked at tonight. It’s contained in the prophecy from Micah quoted in Mt 2:6 (the wise men story):
“from you will come a leader who will shepherd my people Israel.”