Christmas Coptic Articles Index
The Glorious Feast of Nativity:
"…they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." (Matthew
"Now there was in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold an Angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the City of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord….So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into Heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us…Now when they (the shepherds) had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child."
(Luke 2: 8-17)
The angels announced the miraculous and wondrous birth of the Lord Jesus Christ to lowly and simple shepherds in a field watching over their sheep. This glorious announcement was not made to the richest of kings or the esteemed high priests. These mere lowly shepherds would be the first to hear of His birth and the first to share the message of His salvation with others. And the Lord Jesus Christ Himself would come to be called the "Shepherd of Shepherds." What was the significance of announcing the reconciliation of humanity to God and people to each other beginning with the shepherds in the Holy Gospel of St. Luke? What important connotations do sheep and shepherds illustrate in Holy Scripture to hold such great importance at the Glorious Nativity of the Lord Jesus Christ?
Sheep are perhaps the most important animal in the Holy Bible as they are mentioned over 400 hundred times. Their meat was eaten at sacrificial meals and their milk drank usually in the form of curds. Sheepskin was used for clothing and the ram's horns utilized for musical instruments (Joshua 6:4) and oil containers (I Samuel 16:1). Goats also provided milk and skins.
Shepherding a flock of sheep and goats meant moving their flocks to new
pastures in search of sustenance, ensuring an abundant and clean water
supply, and constantly seeking out the lost. The shepherd's responsibilities
further included guarding the sheep from the attacks of predators and wild
animals such as bears, lions, and wolves often placing their own lives in
danger to protect their flocks.
Shepherding a flock was not the most glorious of occupations and may perhaps have even been frowned upon by more civilized populations. Evidence of this may be found in the Holy Book of Genesis 46:32-34: "…And the men are shepherds, for they have been keepers of cattle; and they have brought their flocks, and their herds, and all that they have. When Pharaoh calls you and says, 'What is your occupation?' you shall say, 'Your servants have been keepers of cattle from our youth even until now, both we and our fathers,' in order that you may dwell in the land of Goshen; for every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians."
The prophets Moses, David, and Amos all worked as shepherds during some part of their lifetime. The Hebrew founding fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were shepherds. Jacob upon his migration to Egypt and his representatives were brought before pharaoh they described their occupation by saying to the monarch, "Thy servants are shepherds, both we, and also our fathers." (Genesis 47:3)
King David was a shepherd as a young boy. A Psalm said of David the shepherd who became David the King, "He chose also his servant, and took him from the sheepfolds: From following the ewes' great with young he brought him to feed Jacob his people, and Israel his inheritance. So he fed them according to the integrity of his heart; and guided them by the skillfulness of his hands." (Psalm 78:70-72)
King David in his rejoicing and wisdom wrote that the Lord was his Shepherd in the 23rd Psalm also known as the Sacramental Psalm. "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures." (Psalm 23:1-2) David the Prophet believed with the Lord as our True Shepherd we are not lacking. He will take care of us, manage our lives, and make it beneficial and fruitful in much the same manner only greater than the Old Testament shepherds cared for and nurtured their sheep.
The welfare of the flock was entirely dependent upon the management afforded them by their shepherd. But the words of David the Prophet seem to imply a deeper meaning than simply "not lacking." They mean contentment. We do not desire anything more in our lives than the Lord Jesus Christ. In the New Testament the Lord Jesus Christ reiterated this when He said to the rich young ruler who wished to become His follower, "Go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast and give to the poor…and come…follow Me." (Mark 10:21)
St. Clement of Alexandria (c. 195) wrote, "Christ admonished the rich man to leave his busy life and to cleave to One, adhering to the grace of Him who offered everlasting life."
The social behavior of sheep is such that they will not lie down until they are free of all fear, are at peace with each other, are free from pestilence, and are free of hunger. The shepherd must provide these things for his flock to enable them to lie down in green pastures. The shepherd realizes that anxiety ridden flocks will not do well and will exhibit agitation, discontent, and restlessness.
David would know these behaviors from his experience in watching his flocks and inferred this in the 23rd Psalm. Perhaps this is another reason the metaphor of shepherd is so often used as a sustainer of life.
The 23rd Psalm makes mention of water (baptism) in verse 2. "He leads me beside the still waters, He restores my soul." This still water, is the pure baptismal water that alone can satisfy His sheep, quince their thirst, and restores their soul. The Eucharist is identified, in verse 5 "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies." In Verse 5 also is reference to Chrismation, "You anoint my head with oil." Therefore the 23rd Psalm is commonly called the "The Lord the Shepherd of His People" and "The Sacramental Psalm."
The 23rd Psalm is recited during the altar consecration. The consecration of the altar, representing the self-sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ (the True Shepherd of Shepherds), actually begins with the 23rd Psalm. The altar is the sacramental green pasture for the flock of the church through which we meet our Good Shepherd, upon which the church life flourishes, partaking of His sacrificial body and blood. This Psalm speaks to Baptism, Chrismation, and Eucharist as the Shepherd's Holy and Divine gifts to His rational sheep.
St. Ambrose stated, "The law instructs, history informs, prophecy predicts, corruption censures, and morals exhort. In the Book of Psalms you will find the fruit of all these, as well as a remedy for the salvation of the soul. The Psalter deserves to be called, the praise of God, the glory of man, the voice of the church, and the most beneficial confession of faith."
The Lord Jesus Christ was born in humbleness and would grow in His humanity to exhibit meekness, patience, and submission to the Father, just as the sheep exhibits to their shepherd. The relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ is the same as that demonstrated by the shepherd to its flocks. The Lord Jesus Christ would grow in spirit and truth and be the Shepherd of Shepherds not seeing His flock as sinners to be condemned as the Jewish leaders of His day who acted as wolves among the sheep, but viewed sinners as harassed, helpless and lost sheep to be found and brought back safely home.
In the Holy Gospel of St. John, chapter 10 the Lord Jesus Christ uses a parable illustrating salvation with the symbolism of a shepherd and his sheep. In verse 7, the Lord Jesus Christ calls Himself the Shepherd or "Door." "…Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the Door of the sheep." The Lord is saying no one can enter the door except by way of Him.
In the Holy Gospel of St. John, the Lord Jesus Christ describes His relationship to the believers who followed His teachings, "I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep" (John 10:11). The Good Shepherd and those under the Good Shepherd's direction will look after the sheep even to the point of giving their lives for the sheep.
In conclusion, the Lord Jesus Christ was not born within a royal palace, but within humble surroundings in a manger. His birth would be announced to lowly shepherds that sought Him out. He did not force His birth upon us. He did not coerce His way into our lives after His Holy birth. Rather He led the way to eternal salvation for those who would but follow. He compassionately taught through parables, miracles, and personal sacrifice introducing Christianity into sinful and troubled hearts. He was The Shepherd who went ahead of His sheep. He did not drive them from behind. He led them beside that which was good away from danger and sin. His birth would restore the soul of all and His earthly ministry would guide the obedient toward eternal righteousness. His birth would revitalize our souls and in times of darkness and trouble He will offer consolation to all the faithful. The Holy birth of the Shepherd of Shepherds would be the door which would permit us to enter and dwell in the House of the Lord forever.
May the Shepherd of Shepherds birth renew His contentment in us all.
H.G. Bishop Youssef
Bishop, Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States
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