Interview with a Shepherd
Or: “We Were Counting Our Blessings Instead of Sheep…Oops!”
We have re-learned in recent years that December 25 was popularized as the date for Christmas not because Jesus was actually born on that day but because it was already widely used in pagan religious celebrations as the birthday of the sun. A developing Christianity was, frankly, in competition for adherents with a number of those religious movements so why not have the birthday for the central figure in the Christian movement be born on that day too?
Lacking any specific scriptural pointers to Jesus’ birthday, early Christian teachers suggested days and dates “all over the calendar,” as one scholar put it. Clement of Alexandria picked November 18. Hippolytus had no date in mind, but became convinced that Jesus had to have been born on a Wednesday, which works out well for Hippolytus in 2013. Take your pick; December 25 wasn’t the time. So when might it have been instead?
I’m no armchair meteorologist, but those in the know tell us that from early May through late September Bethlehem had warm to hot weather with humidity dropping into the 60% range. This meant that it “felt” hotter than it actually was. Even without Daylight Savings Time, there were more hours of sunlight in those summer months than in the coming winter time.
In Bethlehem from May to September there was little or no chance of rain except on those rare instances when a brief downpour came on a particularly sweltering day—doing little more than creating a sauna effect. These extremely hot days today are called humsin in Israel, and the dry dusty heat—such as we learned about in the early days of the war in Iraq—can be unbearable.
Jesus’ parents came to Bethlehem to register in a Roman-established census. Romans weren’t ridiculous with those over whom they ruled so they wouldn’t have ordered people to travel to their places of birth during winter months when temperatures in and around Bethlehem were typically below freezing with no one to clear the ice off the preferred pathways into the city.
This changes a great deal about the way we have envisioned and sung about the birth event of Jesus, Yeshua. Unfortunately, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” is one of my favorite Christmas carols. Oh well. What a more correct concept of climate in view, let us move ahead.
Nearly everything about the Gospel of Luke’s retelling of the the events surrounding the birth of Jesus, one of only two birth narratives that made it down to us, stresses the starkly humble circumstances of Jesus’ birth. The angels in the heavens, skies, take note of the birth and break out in joyous musical rejoicing, but on earth no one takes note of the birth of Jesus except a handful of shepherds who get a tip from a lone angel/messenger that someone born to be great had just been birthed not far from where they were tending to the sheep of their employer.
The shepherds were shocked for a number of reasons–most significantly that anybody born who’d be destined for greatness wouldn’t be born anywhere near their pastures. Further, if news needed to be spread that a baby destined for greatness had just been born, the shepherds would have been near the bottom of the notification list. All the social higher-ups and uppity-ups would be notified first, and then, eventually, the news would circulate, and people at the periphery of society like shepherds and tanners and fishermen would hear third and fourth hand–perhaps from an employer or a customer.
Imagine an interview with a shepherd: “There we were—counting our blessings instead of sheep, for just a moment–when this dude who said he was God’s messenger walked up to us, out in the middle of no where, telling us that this baby who was going to grow up to live under the anointing of God Godself. Sure thing, we laughed, and where are we going to find him? At the Blow On Inn? He didn’t think we were funny and told us to walk toward town toward a hostel at the edge of the city limits, and in the barn attached to that hotel we’d find a newborn whose parents were using a feed trough for a crib. He disappeared, and the second he did, the whole sky was lit up by a chorus of angels singing. All of us on duty that night saw them, but the wildest thing is, no one else did. And since then, no one we’ve told has believed us. How could we have made it up? We took the dare and went and found that little baby just like the messenger had described him. I’ll never forget it.”
We’ve been thinking during these weeks leading up to Christmas about what makes one a spiritual seeker. This is one of the traits that should be on the list that defines a spiritual seeker: nobody believes me when I try to describe what I consider spiritual experiences. Add that one to being a misfit, having a greater commitment to behavior in contrast with beliefs, and having had the lonely experience of finding yourself in the middle of life crisis for which the theology you have claimed to believe offered you no sense, solace, or support. The shepherds certainly were seekers.
I sent around an email last night to a few of my grad students past and present, and asked them, “In what language did the angels sing to the shepherds?” Most ignored me, just like in class, but a few bit and dared an answer. One of my first grad students, going back about thirty years, instantly texted his response: “Ebonics.” Not a bad guess huh?
One of the current students thought and thought and came back with the answer, “Aramaic, the conversational language spoken by Jesus and his contemporaries.” I liked that one so I looked up a transliterated-into-English version of the Aramaic New Testament, and instead of, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace,” I found, “Tsbwhta lalha bmrwma.” As far as the tune to which they sang these words, I feel certain that Handel had to have gotten it right.
We speculate a lot at Christmas; if we didn’t we wouldn’t have much to think about or sing about. None of the details of Jesus’ birth matter except that actual fact of his birth. At the end of the season, that’s all that matters anyway. Jesus was born in a distant land. Tell the good news. Tell the good news. Lived on earth for humanity’s good. Tell the good news. Tell the good news.”
Glory to God, and to humanity: peace. Amen.