I recently saw a documentary about Aramaic, the ancient language that Jesus spoke. Aramaic was the commercial language of the Persian Empire, and thus became the everyday tongue of many of the peoples whom the Persians conquered. The language has almost become extinct except in a few villages. One of which this documentary visited. They interviewed a Christian Shepard who lived in a Muslim village, he spoke Aramaic as his first language. He stood leaning on his Shepard’s crook, wearing military fatigues and an Arab head scarf. He looked like he could probably take down two men in a fight no problem, his face was sun beaten and he wore a magnificent moustache. Behind the wrinkles his eyes sparkled as he spoke, he was the kind of guy you could listen to tell stories for hours. There was something arresting about him. Something magnetic about this man who spent most of his time alone with his flock. There was something that you could not put your finger on but, something mysterious, something that drew you in..
The great Edwardian writer and thinker G.K Chesterton noted that many of us miss the role that the shepards play in the Christmas story. When we think back to the Shepards, we may think of the static nativity scenes seen outside many churches, the shepards dutifully playing their supporting roles in the wings, quiet and subservient as they wait on their Messiah. We may see them as humble, simple folk, kind of like first century working class heroes, who naively and almost accidentally stumble upon the reality of the incarnation. Yet Chesterton notes that such definitions are too simplistic and that they miss the important literal and symbolic place that these herders of sheep play in the cosmic drama of the nativity.
The shepards had much in common with Abraham and that first band of nomads that turned away from the civilizing and secularising effects of the city, preferring to search for a bigger, more dangerous God who inhabits the quiet, lonely dark places of the desert. The shepard represented the peoples of the middle east who lived on the edge of the cities, those who had not bought into the propaganda of the superpower be it Sumerian, Babylonian, Greek or Roman. As the cities became more sophisticated, they spread their gospel of reason and sensibility across the lands.
The shepards however walked a different path than their tame cousins of the city. They walked the same well worn paths through the scrub and sand that their relatives had walked for generations. To them the land seemed an extension of their bodies. They lived in the place that God made his presence known again and again throughout the biblical story. The wilderness.
As the citizens of the cities discussed the latest philosophies in their academies and public squares, out on the edge of the Empire. Out in the darkness around flickering campfires, the Shepards told the old stories, their tales were full of myth and imagination, they sang the ancient, haunting songs of the wilderness. These men represented something primal, something passionately essential about humanity that the cynical and captive citizens of the cities had lost. These men still believed in the deeper magic.
So as the Jews of the cities waited for Messiah to come flashing down Jerusalem’s main street in a cloud of lighting, glitz, glam and thunder. It was these shepards who had their Hebraic ears to the ground, who were the first to detect the divine subterranean rumblings that began to reverberate around the fields of Bethlehem in the dark of that night. When the angel-show began in the sky, the shepards did not have to scratch their cynical heads and rub their disbelieving eyes, they did not have to process this event through a grid of Aristotelian logic, rather these wild men shook with terror. Transcendent, wonderful, thrilling, terror. A very different kind of terror than the kind we see as 737’s puncture blue skies and skyscrapers. Rather this is the terror of awe, of reverence, it is that fantastic feeling of fear that grips you as you begin your decent down the roller coaster. The kind of excited terror that would grip you as you realised that everything that you, your ancestors and the whole of humanity had yearned for was coming true.
And thus it is these men who first encounter the messiah. Rather than the religous suits down at temple HQ, it is these wildmen of the margins who represent all the repressed and forgotten dreams and desires of humanity, the remnant who still held onto the dream. It is these men who herald the Messiah, who are chosen as the honour guard for the revolution that turns the world upside down and inside out. A revolution that begins as a homeless child in a manger is born a king.