The astonishment: The Shepherds of Bethlehem
The first to receive the heavenly revelation were the shepherds, simple men and for this reason open to faith. The shepherds became the recipients of the revelation but also the conveyors of the message that they had heard. They represent the people of Israel; it is through them that the joy is communicated to the people. The image of the shepherds we have from the Sacred Scripture is that of real people who live, who look after their flocks with faithfulness and care. The heavenly event thus enters almost unobserved into the simple and sober lives of these men. The shepherds receive the angel’s message with faith and depart without delay for Bethlehem where there is to be a sign for them. They herald the evangelizing action of the apostolic Church and the Church in every age.
The angel who is the messenger of good news is a frequent occurrence in mythic tradition, and here as elsewhere fear is shown, a sacred tremor when faced with the reality of a God that is altogether different, superhuman and elusive. But the angel reassures the shepherds: “Do not be afraid”, for his message carried within it in a reality destined to bring great joy – the news of the birth of the awaited Savior.
In the announcement it is revealed to the shepherds that they will find the Child wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger, this will be the sign to allow them to recognize the Messiah. The appearance with which Jesus chose to incarnate himself conflicts with the image of the Savior Messiah of the people of Israel belonging to the offspring of David. In contrast, here before the eyes of the shepherds is a normal child, who moreover is lying in an unusual place, in a manger. This serves to highlight the fact that God carries out his projects in ways different from what men may expect. God who always chooses the simplest men for manifesting his power and for showing himself to his people, here also chooses the least sensational manner of manifesting himself to man. The power of God is in fact so great that it is difficult for man to understand it, and for this reason God chooses to make himself close to, and similar to, man in order to make himself recognizable.