12 Days of Christmas Reflection Series – Day 6
“And in the same region, there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.”
In almost all the Christmas presentations a picture of shepherds is there. Frightened by the angel’s sudden appearance, they wondered at the good news from the angel and rush to Bethlehem to see the born Savior. As they return to their flocks, they praise God and tell all the people they met about the birth of Immanuel. But after they finish spreading the good tidings, they were out of the stage, and we hardly give them another thought. They are only there as decorations and extras.
But why did the announcement come to them at all? Why not to priests and kings? Who were they that they should be eyewitnesses of God’s glory and receive history’s greatest birth announcement?
In the days of the Prophets, sheepherders symbolized judgment and social desolation (Zephaniah 2:6). Amos contrasted his high calling as a prophet with his former role as a shepherd (Amos 7:14). Shepherds then were “despised in everyday life.” They were generally considered second-class and untrustworthy.
Shepherding once was a noble profession but lost its widespread appeal and it eventually forfeited its social acceptability. Some shepherds earned their poor reputations, but others became victims of a cruel stereotype especially during Egyptian rule. The religious leaders maligned the shepherd’s good name; rabbis banned pasturing sheep and goats in Israel, except on desert plains.
Judaism’s written record of the oral law, also reflects this prejudice, referring to shepherds in belittling terms. One passage describes them as “incompetent”; another says no one should ever feel obligated to rescue a shepherd who has fallen into a pit. Shepherds were deprived of all civil rights. They could not fulfill judicial offices or be admitted in court as witnesses. To buy wool, milk, or a kid from a shepherd was forbidden on the assumption that it would be stolen property.
In Christ’s days, shepherds stood on the bottom rung of the social ladder. They shared the same lower status as tax collectors and dung sweepers. The religious leaders maintained a strict caste system at the expense of shepherds and other common folks. Shepherds were officially labeled “sinners”—a technical term for a class of despised people. Shepherding became a lowly work for the toiling class. They lived in isolation, in a faraway land and they hardly see people and come to the town centers.
It was into this social context of religious snobbery and class prejudice that God’s Son was born. How surprising and significant that Father God handpicked lowly, unpretentious shepherds to first hear the joyous news: “It’s a boy, and He’s the Messiah!”
Even from birth, Christ moved among the lowly. It was those branded as sinners, not the self-righteous that He came to save (Mark 2:17). A handful of shepherds, marginalized by the social and religious elite, were chosen to break the silence of centuries, heralding Messiah’s birth.
Following Jesus’ elevation of the status of the shepherds by claiming that he is the good shepherd, the shepherding role has again become prominent in the church. But instead of seeing and looking at the pastors, priests, and bishops of today who have become the self-righteous and pretentious shepherds of the flock, let us look around us and find who among today’s people are likened to the status and situations of the historical and biblical shepherds in the time of Jesus birth.
They are those who work not only away from home and families but also away from the city centers. They can see from afar the beautiful places but are not sure if they can set their feet on them. They are those who are under the rule of other nations’ flags whose bosses are almost equal if not the law and rulers themselves. Like the shepherds, they also live and work in dangerous situations but the majority, if not all of them, are afraid to complain about their situation so as not to lose their job. They are those whose voices are not being heard in society and often even their families cannot and do not understand them. They are those behind the movements of the goods that we are using and eating and drinking every day that keeps the economy and life of people going.
They are the seafarers. Like the poor shepherds in the story of Jesus’ birth, they are also forgotten and not seen after all their hard works.
The seafarers from the third countries are the most neglected by their governments. In the Philippines, seafarers are begging on their knees to the manning agencies whose owners are like leeches continuously sucking the blood of the seafarers who are queuing in thousands every day to get hired. But not like a regular employee who is hired once and waits until retirement or when he resigns, but the seafarers are queuing and seek to be hired again after each nine-month contract ends. The government is pimping its own people to serve their foreign masters in capitalist countries such as here in Europe.
God himself chose the poor shepherds to be the first guests of the newborn messiah on Christmas eve. Jesus lifted up and recaptured the noble job of the shepherds when he claimed that He is the good shepherd.
Today, as God’s people we should challenge ourselves and bring about change in the lives of the seafarers by becoming their voices. The best we can do for them is to support the bill in congress about the Magna Carta for Seafarers filed by the Makabayan bloc of progressive party lists.
Let me be so bold to the leaders of the churches: the seafarers are already in hemorrhage from the manning agencies and from the government fees and taxes, let not the church be an added burden to them financially.
May our Christmas be meaningful, and our new year is bountifully fair and just.
Hamburg, 30th December 2021, The Sixth day of Christmas