Shepherds and Angels

We are approaching the Christian celebration of the Nativity of Jesus, and as happens every year the familiar stories are being re-told.  In addition to the central event of the birth itself, there is the interesting side-story of the angels announcing the good news to shepherds watching over their flocks.   The shepherds are the humblest of people; the gospel does not bother to record their names, nor even to say how many there were.  They are poor, humble, socially insignificant, and as they look after animals, very close to the earth. Nevertheless, they are granted a celestial vision of an army of angels proclaiming the message of God: peace in the world and good will to all humanity. This is presumably not because of their merit, but simply because they happened to be nearby at the sacred moment; because, one could say, they shared the humility of the Christ-child’s birth place.

When we reflect on this story of the shepherds seeing the heavens open above them,  we might also remember the beginning of the prayer Saum.  The first lines of the prayer are simply the human being addressing God, praising the Divine presence and naming certain qualities (‘Omnipotent, Omnipresent, All-Pervading‘).  After these lines of invocation by which we firmly orient ourselves, what is our first real request in the prayer? “Take us in Thy parental arms; raise us from the denseness of the earth.”  These words remind us that, however humble our circumstances, no matter how tangled we are in the thorn-bushes of ego, we are of noble origin, and this world of limitations is not our home.  We live here for a time; we are privileged to play our part on this stage for a few moments, and—hopefully!—learn lessons that the angels, pure and  disembodied, would be unable to master; but we will never find our true happiness here in exile.  Nor are we destined to remain here forever.

In the darkness, therefore, the darkness of night and the darkness of our own ignorance, let us open our hearts to the heavens, and remember the light and purity from which we have sprung.

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