And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night…
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them. –Luke 2:8-20
As we pass out into the night, its sky all aglow with starry brightness, its loneliness is suddenly peopled, and its silence made vocal from heaven. There is nothing now to conceal, but much to reveal, though the manner of it would seem strangely incongruous to Jewish thinking. And yet Jewish tradition may here prove both illustrative and helpful. That the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, was a settled conviction.
Equally so was the belief, that He was to be revealed from Migdal Eder, ‘the tower of the flock.’ “This Migdal Eder was not the watch-tower for the Ordinary flocks which pastured on the barren sheep ground beyond Bethlehem, but lay close to the town, on the road to Jerusalem. A passage in the Mishnah leads to the conclusion, that the flocks, which pastured there, were destined for Temple-sacrifices, and, accordingly, that the shepherds, who watched over them, were not ordinary shepherds. The latter were under the ban of Rabbanism, on account of their necessary isolation from religious ordinances, and their manner of life, which rendered strict legal observance unlikely, if not absolutely impossible. The same Mishnic passage also leads us to infer, that these flocks lay out all the year round, since they are spoken of as in the fields thirty days before the Passover –that is, in the month of February, when in Palestine the average rainfall is nearly greatest.
Thus, Jewish tradition in some dim manner apprehended the first revelation of the Messiah from that Migdal Eder where shepherds watched the Temple-flocks all the year round. Of the deep symbolic Significance of such a coincidence, it is needless to speak.
It was, then, on that night, that shepherds watched the flocks destined for sacrificial services, in the very place consecrated by tradition as that where the Messiah was to be first revealed.
All of a sudden came the long-delayed, unthought of announcement. Heaven and earth seemed to mingle, as suddenly an Angel stood before their dazzled eyes, while the out streaming glory, the Lord seemed to enwrap them, as in a mantle of light. Surprise, awe, fear would be hushed into calm expectancy, as from the Angel they heard, that what they saw boded not judgment, but ushered in to waiting Israel the great joy of those good tidings which he brought: that the long-promised Savior, Messiah, Lord, was born in the City of David, and that they themselves might go and see, and recognize Him by the humbleness of the circumstances surrounding His Nativity.
It was, as if attendant angels had only waited the signal. As, when the sacrifice was laid on the altar, the Temple-music burst forth in three sections, each marked by the blast of the priests’ silver trumpets, as if each Psalm were to be a Tris-Hagion; so, when the Herald-Angel had spoken, a multitude of heaven’s host- stood forth to hymn the good tidings he had brought. What they sang was but the reflex of what had been announced. It told in the language of praise the character, the meaning, the result, of what had taken place.
Heaven took up the strain of ‘glory’; earth echoed it as ‘peace’; it fell on the ears and hearts of men as ‘good pleasure’:
Glory to God in the highest– And upon earth peace– Among men good pleasure!
Only once before had the words of the Angels’ hymn fallen upon mortal’s ears, when, to Isaiah’s rapt vision. Heaven’s high Temple had opened, and. the glory of Jehovah swept its courts, almost breaking down the trembling posts that bore its boundary gates. Now the same glory enwrapped the shepherds on Bethlehem’s plains. Then the Angels’ hymn had heralded the announcement of the Kingdom coming, now that the King come. Then it had been the Tris-Hagion of prophetic anticipation; now, that of Evangelistic fulfillment.
The hymn had ceased; the light faded out of the sky; and the shepherds were alone. But the Angelic message remained with them; and the sign, which was to guide them to the Infant Christ, lighted their rapid way up the terraced height to where, at the; entering of Bethlehem, the lamp swinging over the hostelry directed them to the strangers of the house of David, who had come from Nazareth.
Though it seems as if, in the hour of her utmost need, the Virgin-Mother had not been ministered to by loving hands, yet what had happened in the stable must soon have become known in the roadside inn.
Perhaps friendly women were still passing to and fro on errands of mercy, when the shepherds reached the ‘stable.’ – There they found perhaps not what they had expected, but as they had been told. The Holy group only consisted of the humble Virgin-Mother, the lowly carpenter of Nazareth, and the Babe laid in the manger. What further passed we know not, save that, having seen it for themselves, the shepherds told what had been spoken to them about this Child, to all around –in the ‘stable,’ in the fields, probably also in the Temple, to which they would bring their flocks, thereby preparing the minds of a Simeon, of an Anna, and of all them that looked for salvation in Israel.
And now the hush of wondering expectancy fell once more on all, who heard what was told by the shepherds –this time not only in the hill-country of Judea, but within the wider circle that embraced Bethlehem and the Holy City. And yet it seemed all so sudden, so strange. That on such slender thread, as the feeble throb of an Infant-life, the salvation of the world should hang –and no special care watched over His safety, no better shelter be provided it than a ‘ stable,’ no other cradle than a manger! And still it is ever so. On what slender thread has the continued life of the Church often seemed to hang; on what feeble throbbing that of every child of God –with no visible outward means to ward off danger, no home of comfort, no rest of ease. But lo, children are Jehovah’s heritage! –And so, He giveth to his beloved in his sleep!
–Alfred Edersheim, “The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah”