One of my favorite hidden-camera gags is of high school students called to the counselor’s office to learn the results of their career aptitude tests.
The first student entered the office and took a seat. The counselor said the results were clear-cut as to what career path the student should pursue.
The student was immediately attentive and sat up straight.
The counselor said, “Shepherd.”
Not a single student, when informed they were suited to be a shepherd, fist bumped the counselor, asked about starting pay or a benefits package. Silence. Each and every one was dumbfounded.
I’m not sure the role of shepherd is terribly popular anywhere. Even in Christmas pageant settings, parents of the kids who play Mary and Joseph will gladly point out their star. Parents of shepherds tend to go mute. Let’s be honest here – even sheep have more lines than shepherds. Baa.
Offstage and across pasture lands, sheep are greasy and smelly. Wet wool is matted, dirty and mangy.
Sheep not only bump into you, they constantly bump into each other. Lacking fangs, talons, a powerful roar or amazing speed, they flock to protect themselves. It is their only and best defense. Unless, of course, they flock together and walk off a 50-foot cliff like 1,500 sheep did in Turkey several years ago.
Sheep also have a reputation as, well, not very bright. This is why you occasionally read groundbreaking studies claiming sheep may actually have intelligence. The journal Nature reports that sheep may be as good as humans at distinguishing faces in a crowd. Yes, three out of five sheep can pick out a Kardashian on Rodeo Drive.
Tending sheep is for a select few. The wages and resources for sheep herding are better today, but even now a sheep herder must be rough and gritty, able to endure harsh elements, loneliness and a good measure of frustration.
The role of the shepherds in the Christmas narrative has always been a marvel. The announcement of Christ’s birth could have been delivered to anybody – the rich, the powerful, the established class, those in the know with name recognition and good connections. But the news was delivered to shepherds – rough and rugged men with little money, no power and no status. They were working class, without wealth or social pedigrees.
The shepherds have been polished and refined over the years, now often appearing in crèche sets, on cards and in romanticized paintings with neat and clean robes, trimmed beards and a peaceful countenance. In reality, their clothes were worn and tattered and bore the smell of sweat and hard work. Their beards were probably matted and the looks on their faces were likely ones of bewilderment – dumbfounded, just like the kids in the counselor’s office.
The news of Christ’s birth not only came first to lowly shepherds, the one born in the manger grew to be like them, lowly and humble, known as the Good Shepherd.
I like that the news of Christ’s birth came to ordinary people first, to the everyday man with universal struggles and universal hopes and dreams. It still does.