Visit of the Shepherds to Jesus and His Mother
The marginalized are God’s favorites
1. Opening prayer
Lord Jesus, send Your Spirit to help us read the Scriptures the same way that You read them to the disciples on the way to Emmaus. In the light of the Word, written in the Bible, You helped them to discover the presence of God in the disturbing events of Your sentence and death. Thus, the cross that seemed to be the end of all hope became for them the source of life and of resurrection.
Create silence in us so that we may listen to Your voice in Creation and in the scriptures, in events and in people, and above all in the poor and suffering. May Your word guide us so that we too, like the two disciples on the way to Emmaus, may experience the force of Your resurrection and witness to others that You are alive in our midst as a source of fraternity, justice and peace. We ask this of You, Jesus, son of Mary, who revealed to us the Father and sent us Your Spirit. Amen.
a) A key to the reading:
The reason for Joseph and Mary to go to Bethlehem was the census imposed by Rome’s emperor (Lk 2:1-7). Periodically, the Roman authorities decreed these censuses in the various regions of their immense empire. It was a matter of registering people and knowing how many had to pay taxes. The rich paid taxes on land and goods. The poor paid for the number of children they had.
In Luke’s Gospel we note a significant difference between the birth of Jesus and that of John the Baptist. John is born at home, in his land, in the midst of parents and neighbors and is welcomed by all (Lk 1:57-58). Jesus is born unknown, away from His surroundings of family and neighbors and far from His land. “There was no room in the inn.” He had to be left in a manger (Lk 2:7).
Let us try to put our text (Lk 2:16-21) into the wider context of the visit of the shepherds (Lk 2:8-21). As we read, let us try to pay attention to the surprises we find and the contrasts that appear in this text.
b) A division of the text to help us in our reading:
Luke 2:8-9: The shepherds in the field, the first persons invited
Luke 2:10-12: The first announcement of the Good News is made to the shepherds
Luke 2:13-14: The praise of the angels
Luke 2:15-18: The shepherds go to Bethlehem and tell of their vision of the angels
Luke 2:19-20: Mary’s attitude and that of the shepherds concerning these events
Luke 2:21: The circumcision of the child Jesus
In the countryside close by there were shepherds out in the fields keeping guard over their sheep during the watches of the night. An angel of the Lord stood over them and the glory of the Lord shone round them. They were terrified, but the angel said, 'Do not be afraid. Look, I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord. And here is a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.' And all at once with the angel there was a great throng of the hosts of heaven, praising God with the words, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace for those He favors.’ Now it happened that when the angels had gone from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, 'Let us go to Bethlehem and see this event which the Lord has made known to us.' So they hurried away and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. When they saw the child they repeated what they had been told about Him, and everyone who heard it was astonished at what the shepherds said to them. As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds went back glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as they had been told. When the eighth day came and the child was to be circumcised, they gave Him the name Jesus, the name the angel had given Him before His conception.
3. A moment of prayerful silence
so that the Word of God may penetrate and enlighten our life.
4. Some questions
to help us in our personal reflection.
a) What did you like best in this text? Why?
b) What surprises and contrasts do you find in this text?
c) How does the text teach us that the little ones are great in heaven and the poorest on earth?
d) What is Mary’s attitude and that of the shepherds concerning the mystery of God just revealed to them?
e) What is the message Luke wants to communicate to us through these details?
5. For those who wish to go deeper into the theme
a) The context of then and of today:
The text of the feast of the Mother of God (Lk 2:16-21) is part of the broader description of the birth of Jesus (Lk 2:1-7) and the visit of the shepherds (Lk 2:8-21). The angel had announced the birth of the savior and gave a sign of recognition: “You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger!” They were expecting the savior of a whole people and they were to recognize Him in a newborn child, poor, who lies close to two animals! What a great surprise!
God’s plan is fulfilled in an unexpected way, full of surprise. This happens today too. A poor child is the savior of the people! Can you believe this?
b) A commentary on the text:
Luke 2:8-9: The first invited people.
The shepherds were marginalized people and not appreciated. They lived together with the animals, separate from the rest of humanity. Because of their constant contact with animals, they were considered impure. No one would have ever invited them to visit a newly born baby. This is why the Angel of the Lord appears to pass on the great news of the birth of Jesus to them. Seeing the vision of the angels, they are full of fear.
Luke 2:10-12: The first announcement of the Good News
Luke 2:13-14: The praise of the angels: Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace for those He favors.
A multitude of angels appears descending from heaven. It is heaven that bends itself towards the earth. The parts of this verse summarize God’s plan. The first part tells us what happens in the world up there: Glory to God in the highest heaven. The second part tells us what will happen in the world here below: On earth peace for those He favors! If people could experience what it means to be favored by God, everything would be different and peace would dwell on earth. And this would be to the greater glory of God who dwells in the highest!
Luke 2:15-18: The shepherds go to Bethlehem and tell of their vision of the angels.
The Word of God is no longer a sound produced by the mouth. It is an event! The shepherds literally say, “Let us go to Bethlehem and see this event which the Lord has made known to us”. In Hebrew, the expression DABAR means word or talk. The word of God is a creative force. It fulfills what it says. At creation God said, “Let there be light, and there was light!” (Gen 1:3). The word of the angel to the shepherds is the event of the birth of Jesus.
Luke 2:19-20: Mary’s attitude and that of the shepherds concerning these events
Luke immediately adds that, "Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart". These are two ways of hearing and welcoming the Word of God: (i) The shepherds get up to see the events and verify the sign given by the angel, and then they go back to their flocks glorifying and praising God for all that they had seen and heard; (ii) Mary, on the other hand, carefully keeps all these events in her mind and meditates on them in her heart. To meditate on things in one’s heart means to reflect on them in the light of the Word of God, to understand their full significance.
Luke 2:21: The circumcision and Name of Jesus.
According to the norms of the law, the child Jesus is circumcised on the eighth day after His birth (cf. Gen 17:12). Circumcision was a sign of belonging to the people. It gave the person an identity. On this occasion each child received his name (cf. Lk 1:59-63). He receives the name of Jesus that had been given Him by the angel before His conception. The angel had said to Joseph that the name of the child had to be Jesus, as “He is the one who is to save His people from their sins” (Mt 1:21). The name of Jesus is the transliteration of the name “Yeshua”, or Joshua, and means Yahweh saves. Another name that will gradually be given to Jesus is Christ, which means Anointed or Messiah. Jesus is the awaited Messiah. A third name is that of Emmanuel, which means God with us (Mt 1:23).
c) Further information:
Mary in Luke’s Gospel
i) The role of the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel:
These are two rather well known but less understood chapters. Luke writes them in imitation of the Old Testament. It is as though these two chapters were the last of the Old Testament so as to open the door for the coming of the New Testament. In these chapters, Luke creates an atmosphere of softness and praise. From beginning to end the mercy of God is sung: God, who comes to fulfill His promises. Luke shows us how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament and begins the New Testament. And He does so in favor of the poor, the anawim, who knew how to wait for His coming: Elisabeth, Zachary, Mary, Joseph, Simeon, Anna and the shepherds. That is why the first two chapters are history but not in the sense that we give to history today. They were more like a mirror for the Christians converted from paganism. They could discover who Jesus was and how He had come to fulfill the prophecies of the Old Testament, satisfying the deepest aspirations of the human heart. These chapters were also a mirror of the events that were taking place within the communities in Luke’s time. The communities originating from paganism will be born from the communities of converted Jews. But these were different. The New did not correspond to what the Old Testament imagined and expected. It was "the sign of contradiction" (Lk 2:34), and caused tensions and was the source of much suffering. In Mary’s reaction, Luke presents a model of how the communities could react to and persevere in the New.
ii) A key to the reading:
In these two chapters Luke presents Mary as a model for the life of the community. The key is given to us in the episode where the woman in the crowd praises the mother of Jesus. Jesus modifies the praise and says: “More blessed still are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Lk 11:27-28). Herein lies the greatness of Mary. It is in the world where Mary knows how to relate to the Word of God that the communities contemplate. The better way of relating to the Word of God: welcoming it, incarnating it, living it, deepening it, reflecting on it, giving it birth and making it grow, allowing oneself to be overpowered by it even when one does not understand it or when one suffers because of it. This is the vision underlying the texts of chapters 1 and 2 of Luke’s Gospel, which speak of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
iii) An application of the key to the texts:
1. Luke 1:26-38: The Annunciation: "Let it happen to me as you have said!"
Opening oneself so that the Word of God may be welcomed and incarnated.
2. Luke 1:39-45: The Visitation: "Blessed is she who believed!"
Recognizing the Word of God in the events of life.
3. Luke 1:46-56: The Magnificat: “The Almighty has done great things for me!”
A resistance hymn of hope.
4. Luke 2:1-20: The Birth: "She treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.”
The marginalized welcome the Word.
5. Luke 2:21-32: The Presentation: "My eyes have seen the salvation!"
God's promise is fulfilled.
6. Luke 2:33-38: Simeon and Anna: "A sword will pierce your soul"
Being a Christian means being a sign of contradiction.
7. Luke 2:39-52: At twelve years: "Did you not know that I must be in My Father's house?"
They did not understand the Word of God addressed to them!
iv) The contrasts that stand out in our text:
1. In the darkness of the night a light shines (2:8-9).
2. The world up there, heaven, seems to embrace our world here below (2:13).
3. The greatness of God manifests itself in the weakness of a child (2:7).
4. The glory of God is made present in a manger, close to animals (2:16).
5. Fear generated by the sudden apparition of an angel is changed into joy (2:9-10).
6. Those completely marginalized are the first to be invited (2:8).
7. The shepherds recognize God present in a child (2:20).
6. Praying with the Psalm 23 (22)
“Yahweh is my shepherd!”
Yahweh is my shepherd,
I lack nothing.
In grassy meadows He lets me lie.
By tranquil streams He leads me
to restore my spirit.
He guides me in paths of saving justice as befits His name.
Even were I to walk in a ravine as dark as death
I should fear no danger,
for You are at my side.
Your staff and Your crook are there to soothe me.
You prepare a table for me under the eyes of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup brims over.
Kindness and faithful love pursue me every day of my life.
I make my home in the house of Yahweh for all time to come.
7. Final Prayer
Lord Jesus, we thank for the word that has enabled us to understand better the will of the Father. May Your Spirit enlighten our actions and grant us the strength to practice what Your Word has revealed to us. May we, like Mary, Your mother, not only listen to but also practice the Word, You who live and reign with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen.
The first thing the angel says is, “Do not be afraid!” The second is Joy to be shared by the whole people! The third is Today! Then the angel gives three names to indicate who Jesus is: savior, Christ and Lord! Savior is the one who frees all people from all ties! The authorities in those days liked to use the title savior. They attributed the title of Soter (Greek) to themselves. Christ means anointed or messiah. In the Old Testament this was the title given to kings and prophets. It was also the title of the future messiah who would fulfill the promises made by God to His people. This means that the newly born child, who lies in a manger, has come to fulfill the hopes of the people. Lord was the name given to God Himself! Here we have the three greatest titles imaginable. From this announcement of the birth of Jesus as savior, Christ and Lord, can you imagine anyone with a higher standing? If an angel says to you, “Be careful! I give you this sign of recognition: you will meet a child in a manger, in the midst of poor people!” Would you believe him? God’s ways are not our ways!