A few days ago I was looking at the Christmas cards we’ve received this year. They are all very nice cards, of course, and thank you to those who have sent us your Christmas wishes. But when I looked at them I noticed something odd.
A lot of the cards we’ve received have religious themes – it comes with the territory – but the thing that intrigued me was which elements of the Nativity story they showed. There were a few pictures of Mary and Jesus, but the biggest subject by far was the wise men, offering their gifts or travelling on their camels. And there were just two that depicted the story we’ve just heard, the story of the shepherds. That may just be chance, but it set me wondering. The people who make Christmas cards presumably know what sells, and it seems that kings are the sure fire winner. I wondered whether this was a recent thing, so I started doing a little research into the way the Nativity has been depicted in history, and sure enough, I discovered that across the centuries, it has been the wise men who get the lion’s share of the artwork.
The earliest depictions of the birth of Christ, from the fourth century or so, are almost always of the wise men. It was around that time that Christians stopped being persecuted and Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Suddenly wealthy and influential people wanted to be associated with this new faith. They had their coffins carved with Biblical scenes, and they built grand churches, adorned with glittering mosaics – the shinier the better. One of their favourite scenes was the procession of the wise men – who gradually turned into kings - bringing their gifts to the infant Jesus as he sits on Mary’s lap.
It was no accident that they were so popular. After all, they had built-in bling. You could sprinkle them with glitter, give them crowns and brightly coloured clothing; all the fun stuff. You could add exotic touches of oriental grandeur. These were people from far away, symbols of international prestige. They would lend you a bit of reflected glory as they shimmered on your church walls. Why would anybody want poor shepherds, dressed in browns and beiges when you could have these glamourous figures?
There’s another reason why the wise men featured so strongly in early art, especially the art that featured on coffins, and that was the fact that they came bearing gifts. The wealthy people buried in them wanted to remind people – and perhaps God – of their generosity. Sometimes their reminders were pretty blunt. Some of the gifts carried by the Magi have numbers inscribed on them, representing the sums of money the donors had given… *
There are pictures of Jesus as the Good Shepherd in this early artwork but the real shepherds of Luke’s Gospel story don’t get a look in. It’s only much later, in the Middle Ages, that they appear in art, at a time when there was a spiritual movement to emphasize far more the human emotions, the down-to-earthness of Christ’s birth. But if my Christmas cards are anything to go by, they’ve never really achieved the status of the wise men. They’re just not photogenic enough.
The shepherds were popular in Medieval drama though, in the great cycles of Mystery plays, which were based on Bible stories. These were a form of community theatre, each scene being acted out by amateur actors from different trade guilds, played in the open air from the back of carts. But though they were popular, the shepherd plays don’t given their subjects much dignity or reverence. In a typical cycle of plays from Wakefield we first meet the shepherds out on the cold hillside, complaining about the weather and their wives and the stinginess of their employers. We expect the angels to arrive any minute, but no, their first visitor is Mac the Sheep-stealer, a notorious local rogue. After a bit of banter he manages to put some sort of spell on them so that they fall asleep, and when they wake up they find that Mac has gone, and so has one of their lambs. Mac takes the lamb home to his wife Gill, who lambasts him for his stupidity; the shepherds are bound to know who the thief is, she says. Just at that moment, sure enough, they see the shepherds heading towards the house. Gill has an idea. She picks up the lamb and stuffs it in an empty cradle standing by the fire and covers it with a blanket, then sits down on a chair nearby and begins to moan and groan loudly to cover the sound of the lamb bleating. The shepherds burst in, full of accusations. “No, no” she says “We haven’t got your sheep. All there is in the house besides us is this newborn baby in the cradle, one of twins, and I am about to deliver the other baby. I swear it’s true, and if I am lying I will eat the child in the cradle”, which is exactly what she plans to do, of course.
And the shepherds fall for it.
They beat a hasty retreat, and Mac and Gill think they’ve got away with it and start taking the lamb out of the cradle. But just at that minute the shepherds return; they’d forgotten to give the new baby a gift and have come back with a sixpence for him. The trick is discovered, and Mac gets a beating. The shepherds retrieve their lamb and go back to the hillside, at which point, of course, the angels appear.
The message of the Mystery play is clear. These shepherds aren’t just poor, they are thick as well, so thick that they can’t tell the difference between a lamb and a baby. They stumble through life more by luck than judgement. I’m quite sure that shepherding is actually a highly skilled job, but that’s not how shepherds were seen in the Middle Ages, nor was it in the time of Jesus, when they also had a reputation for dishonesty, grazing their sheep on other people’s land. And yet in the Gospel story the angels come to them with the news of Christ’s birth. These are the ones who are chosen. They haven’t done anything to deserve it, but they are chosen anyway.
“If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb” it says in the carol we’ve just sung, but actually in the Gospel story, the shepherds take nothing with them at all, nothing but themselves. Maybe they didn’t think of taking a gift. Maybe they had nothing to take. But it doesn’t matter. All they need to do is turn up and be there in that stable. God will do the rest, showing them something that will fill them with joy and wonder, showing them that he is with them, in the reality of their ordinary lives. It is a theme that is picked up through the rest of Luke’s Gospel as fishermen and tax-collectors, prostitutes and outcasts are called to follow Jesus, and are given new dignity and hope as they do so.
I’m not surprised that the Kings make it onto the Christmas cards far more often than the shepherds. They are the people our society values, just as much as it did 2000 years ago – wise and powerful, in control, with gifts to give to others. They’re probably the people we’d like to be, deep down. But if we’re honest, I suspect that most of us, most of the time, feel more like the shepherds. We are just muddling through. We might try to look as if we know what we are doing. We might do our best not to fall flat on our faces. But sooner or later it happens. However wealthy and well-put-together we look, inside most people are all too aware of their insecurities, weighed down by dreams that have crashed and died. Even our sins are usually more cock up than conspiracy. Few people are serial killers or multi million pound fraudsters. The things that louse up our lives are usually not very exciting. We open our mouths before we engage our brains. We get enmeshed in petty arguments that spin out of control. We don’t mean to hurt others, but somehow we do anyway.
Most lives are more farce than epic, if we’re honest. And yet, says this story of the shepherds, God comes to people like us, in the midst of our ordinary messes, in the midst of our awkwardness and embarrassment, and plants his kingdom within us. He puts his work into our hands, just as he put the Christ child into the hands of those shepherds. We may feel we have no more to give him than they did, but that’s the point. All we have to do is turn up, with our eyes open, our hearts open, our hands open, and he will do the rest.
The shepherds go back to their flocks, says Luke, back to their families, back to their lives, telling everyone who will listen this message they have heard, that God is with them - even them - that God cares about them- even them - that God wants them to be part of his kingdom, building a world where his peace rules. And if God wants them and welcomes them, then surely he wants and welcomes each one of us too, ridiculous, fallible, broken as we are.
*The Journey of the Magi: Meanings in History of a Christian Story
Richard C Trexler p 24