Meditative Guide

December 05 2017 | by


A TRADITIONAL Nativity Scene consists of the Holy Family: Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus. Most Nativity sets also include an assortment of shepherds, sheep, magi, camels, and perhaps an oxen and donkey. Of all these figures, which one is generally the tallest? Usually it is a shepherd who is carrying a sheep on his shoulders. There is a reason for this figure’s prominence. The shepherd carrying the sheep represents the Good Shepherd bringing home the sheep that was lost.

Regarding that first Christmas night, Saint Luke (Lk 2:6-18) tells us, “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” When angels appear to announce the birth of Christ, the shepherds “hurried off and found Mary and Joseph and the baby, who was lying in the manger.” The shepherds spread the message of the baby’s birth, and “all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.” Nowhere does Saint Luke hint that the shepherd drove their sheep before them or that one of the shepherds carried a lamb on his shoulders when they ‘hurried off’ to visit the infant. Carrying a lamb on one’s shoulders and driving sheep toward an unfamiliar stable would have delayed the shepherds who were in a ‘hurry’ to see what the angels had described. Quite possibly, some shepherds ‘hurried’ to see what the angels announced while others stayed behind to guard the sheep. Perhaps when these first shepherds returned to the flocks, the remaining shepherds then ‘hurried’ to see the babe.


Meditative guide


If the shepherds probably took along no sheep, why are sheep represented in Nativity sets? They are not there just to explain that these shabby peasants are shepherds. A Nativity set is more than a three-dimensional representation of the first Christmas night. A Nativity set should incite reflection on Christ’s conception, birth, life, death, and resurrection. Seeing the poor newborn Jesus, for example, should remind us that Jesus lived and died poor. The Holy Family inspires us to faith and trust despite hardship and uncertainty. The Magi prove that even power and wealth shall present gifts of homage to our great God.

Even the sheep carry a message. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and his sheep are near him. “Where I am, there shall my servant be” (John 12:26). Consider the sheep closely. Some are lying down, gazing vacantly, apparently lazy and listless, with no particular focus on Jesus. Others are standing and gazing straight ahead. Placed around the manger, they appear to be adoring Jesus.  


Seek first the Kingdom


These sheep figures should cause us to evaluate on who or what we are focusing. Are we focusing on the Kingdom of God? “The kingdom of God is the supreme good: that is why it is to be sought,” wrote St. Anthony. “First, then, seek the kingdom of God, and set it before everything else: all else should be for its sake” (Sermons for Sundays and Festivals II, Messaggero di Sant Antonio – Editrice;  pp. 418-19).

Consider the lamb on the shoulders of the shepherd. This figurine represents Christ, the Good Shepherd, who searches for the lost sheep and carries it on his shoulders. The carried sheep had neither the will nor the strength to come to Christ on its own. Therefore, the shepherd carried it. The carried sheep does not yet recognize that “between earth and death there is only the vanity of the world.” The “movements of the flesh” are like “flocks… and their bleating is their allurement, which the man who takes his ease in the vanity of the world hears.” This man, or woman, needs to “bear… the yoke of penance whereby he governs both himself and his temptations” (Sermons IV, p. 15). Since he or she is too weak yet to carry this yoke, he or she is instead carried by Jesus as his yoke.


Five stages


Thus, the sheep in the Nativity scene represent five stages of the spiritual life: apathy toward God, running from God, being carried by God, recognizing God, and adoring God. However, a person does not progress through these stages without a strong dose of humility. Anthony likens humility to the heart. He notes that Jesus said, “Learn of me, because I am meek and humble of heart” [Mt. 11.29]. Why? Because from humility “comes the motive force of all good work, having great dominion over the rest as the mother and root of all virtues… If humility were to be undermined, the structure of the other virtues would be cast down. St. Gregory says, ‘A man who tries to acquire virtue without humility is like a man trying to carry dust in a wind’” (Sermons I, p. 326). A humble person recognizes that, (s)he, alone, is unwilling and unable to convert. Therefore, God has to carry. When the lamb on the shepherd’s shoulders accepts its own helplessness, it enters the path of humility.


Shepherds or wolves?


We have considered the lamb. Let’s now consider the shepherd who took the time and trouble to seek the lost lamb and bring it back to the flock. Jesus spoke of the good shepherd who would leave the ninety-nine in the desert to go after the one, and who would rejoice when he found it. Jesus’ command to Peter, who represents all the prelates in the Church, was, “Feed my lambs” (John 21,15-16).

Sadly, not all shepherds are good. Anthony had several dealings with evil shepherds of the Church, including the prior of the Augustinian monastery which he entered as a young man. This prior scandalized the area with his sexual encounters with adults and children of both sexes. Disgusted with this behavior, and drawn by the purity and poverty of the followers of Saint Francis, Anthony left the Augustinians to become a Franciscan. However, he never forgot the harm which an evil shepherd brings upon the flock.

Anthony had strong words for such shepherds. He elaborates on Jesus’ words, “If you love me, Peter, feed my flock.” Anthony extrapolates, “If you love me for my own sake, and not yourself for your own sake, feed my lambs, as mine and not yours. Seek my glory, not yours, in them: my gain, not yours, because love of God is proved in love of neighbor. Woe to the man who does not feed even once, but shears and milks three or four times… In Zechariah 11, the Lord curses such a shepherd (or rather, wolf), who feeds himself… the shepherd who deserts the flock entrusted to him is an idol in the Church” (Sermons IV, pp. 291-92).

The shepherds who visited the Christ Child did not desert their flock. Instead, they were so ‘amazed’ that they became the first evangelists to carry the message back to other shepherds and townspeople. While we are all sheep in the flock of Jesus, we are also shepherds who need to care for others, believers in Christ or not. Are we feeding the flock with nurturing words and actions or shearing it with dishonesty and hypocrisy? Are we gazing in wonder at the Lord or have we lost him as our focal point?

Updated on December 05 2017