Each Christmas, we retell the story of the shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night on the first Christmas eve. Angels appeared to them to tell them about the birth of Jesus in a stable at Bethlehem. They “went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.” [Luke 2:16] That God should send an angelic invitation to shepherds is something we simply accept as being part of the Christmas story. But why is it there? I believe it is there because through it we are meant to learn something about Jesus, the special child born that first Christmas. The invitation of the shepherds is a sign of the kind of leader that the child Jesus would grow up to be, a good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.
All through the history of the Jewish people, shepherds are associated with leadership. The founding patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, all had large herds of sheep [Genesis 13:2, 26:14, 30:43]. They raised, protected, cared for and nourished their sheep, and in so doing, they came to recognize that God, in his turn, was raising, protecting, caring for and nourishing them. Jacob, as an old man, spoke of “God who has been my shepherd, all my life” [Genesis 48:15]. After the patriarchs, Moses, who led the Jewish people out of captivity in Egypt, was called by God when serving as a shepherd, while he was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro. “There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.” [Exodus 3:1-2] After Moses, King David, the greatest king of the Jewish people, was, as a boy, a shepherd for his father Jesse [1 Samuel 16:11,19]. It was David’s experience as a shepherd, defending the flock from predators, that made it possible for him to confront and defeat the enemy champion Goliath of Gath, who threatened the people [1 Samuel 17:34-37]. Through the words of the prophet Samuel, God declared that David, in being anointed king, was to be “shepherd of my people Israel” [2 Samuel 5:2, 1 Chronicles 11:2]. David is the author of the famous 23rd psalm, which describes how God’s care is like that of a shepherd for his flock [Psalms 23]. After David, the Jewish prophets wrote often about the people of Israel as a flock of sheep and their leaders as shepherds [Jeremiah 23:4, 50:6; Micah 5:5; Zechariah 10:2-3; 11]. The prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel each wrote significant prophecies about how God would be a true shepherd to Israel, rescuing and pasturing his people as a shepherd tends his sheep [Isaiah 40; Ezekiel 34]. Thus the revealing of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds on the first Christmas is more than a memorable story, it is a link to an important theme about leadership in Jewish history. In sending an angel to invite the shepherds to visit the baby Jesus, God is sending a message about who Jesus is, and what sort of leader he will be.
Indeed, when the child Jesus grows up, becoming a preacher and teacher of the people, he describes himself as a shepherd. Going beyond conventional ideas of what a shepherd is, Jesus calls himself “the good shepherd”. He uses these words:
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. [John 10:11-16]
Here Jesus compares himself to someone who merely holds the job of shepherd, represented by the hired hand who, when danger comes, runs away to save himself. In contrast, Jesus is the good shepherd who cares for his sheep and commits himself fully to them, laying down his life for them. In other words, for Jesus, being a good shepherd is more than a job, it is his very being, it is who he is, and it means that his care for his flock is without limit or reservation. Moreover, unlike Jacob, Moses and David before him, whose care was for the Jewish people, Jesus is not limited to caring only for sheep that “belong to this fold”, he cares for other sheep too, those who “listen to his voice”. Thus Jesus is a good shepherd not just for the Jewish people, but all people. This fulfills the message of the angel to the shepherds on the first Christmas, which describes Jesus’ birth as “good news of great joy for all the people”. [Luke 2:10]
This example of a good shepherd, laying down his life for his flock, is a model that Jesus sets for all Christians who are entrusted with the care of others, such as parents for their children or teachers for their students. But it is particularly true for priests. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “it is Christ himself who is present to his Church as … Shepherd of his flock… This is what the Church means by saying that the priest, by virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders, acts in persona Christi Capitis” [CCC 1548] (which means “in the person of Christ the Head”). This means a priest, in following Christ’s example, is being a good shepherd in the person of Christ. This is lived out every day by thousands of priests who give of themselves for the good of the faithful in their care: they are living out, in their priesthood, Christ the good shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep. It is why it is such a terrible scandal when a predator who “serves” as a priest uses his priesthood to prey upon the flock, especially if that predator is permitted to remain in the role of priest once the abuse has been discovered. The scandal here is the abuse of the flock for the benefit of the abuser, the polar opposite of Jesus, the good shepherd, who lays down his life for the flock. To abuse the flock in persona Christi Capitis is a form of sacrilege, because Christ, the good shepherd, gives his own life for the good of his flock, not the other way around.
Christ’s example of leadership is not just for priests. To be a good shepherd is an important example for all Christians, and it has appeal for non-Christians too. After all, self-sacrificial care for the good of others rather than oneself is something that most can appreciate in their leaders. Yet this is often not the way of leadership in the world. Jesus’ way is contrary to the conventions of worldly power, where those who seek power all too often look to benefit themselves. As good shepherd, Jesus is a leader, yes, but not for his own good, but for the good of his flock, a good he lays down his life to defend. Jesus, that little baby that the shepherds went to find on that first Christmas, the baby spoken about by the angel, grew up to give his life on the cross to save many. In so doing, Jesus showed himself to be truly the good shepherd who “lays down his life for the sheep” [John 10:11].