When you have good news to share, who is the first person you want to tell? Your closest friend or most respected mentor probably has the honor of receiving your first phone call before you share your joy with a wider audience on social media.
In Luke’s Gospel infancy narrative, the Lord opts to privilege the lowly shepherds with premier access to his greatest news – Christ is born!
The angels’ tidings of great joy and hope are offered first to those who most needed to hear it: the poor, vulnerable and outcast. These men needed to learn that they were as worthy of the Lord’s grace as anyone else. No one earned the salvation that Jesus was initiating at his birth. He came to redefine love for all people.
The shepherds, in response, did not stay put in their fields with their flocks. Rather, they went straight to Bethlehem to see the holy infant. Imagine the shepherds’ state of mind when they approached the scene – they must have been bursting with excitement and awe to witness the sign the angels proclaimed!
Surely, visitors from the outskirt pastures would have been an unexpected sight. But then again, having had their own experiences with angelic messengers, perhaps Mary and Joseph were not surprised after all.
I imagine Joseph having a protective instinct. While everyone else looked adoringly at the newborn king, Joseph might have kept watch on the visitors, making sure his beloved was safe and comfortable.
Rather than posing any threat, these nighttime visitors had come to see and to be amazed by the mercy of the Lord. And amid the action, “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Lk 2:19).
Mary was quietly resting and recovering from childbirth, with her swaddled newborn laid in a manger.
During their first midnight feedings, Mary surely practiced contemplative prayer, studying the curve of his earlobe and the patterns of his hair growth while he peacefully nursed to sleep. As she watched his eyelids flutter and counted his sleeping breaths, her heart was that of a new mother, swelling with the overwhelming love for her baby.
Outside there were people who desperately needed to see her son — to know firsthand that their suffering would “be justified by his grace” (Ti 3:7). Mary was aware that the child she bore would bring salvation to them all. But in these early moments of motherhood, all that mattered to her was that her baby was warm and dry.
All along, Mary’s immaculate heart had always been fertile ground for God’s love to grow. Later on, her sorrowful heart would be pierced again and again, seeing the suffering of her child for the sake of the sinful world. Now, Mary’s heart starts collecting reflections of all that she sees and hears each time someone new meets her son.
By making the shepherds among the first to know of Jesus’ birth, God signifies his preferential option for the poor. As a faithful student of Hebrew scripture, Mary could have had the words from Isaiah ringing in her ears: “They shall be called ‘the holy people,’ the redeemed of the Lord” (Is 62:12).
Like so many who would later encounter Jesus, the shepherds immediately started to tell their story to anyone and everyone who would listen. In this way, the shepherds were the first evangelists of their personal kerygma experience.
The mother of the Church would continue to keep all these things, reflecting on them in her heart, praying for her people all the way through the crucifixion and beyond Pentecost into eternity.
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Cassandra Palmer lives with her husband and children in Baltimore, where she is director of religious education at Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church. She holds a master’s degree in church ministries from the Ecumenical Institute at St. Mary’s Seminary and a bachelor’s degree in theology from Mount Saint Mary’s University.