We understand more about the workings of the universe today than our ancestors could ever have imagined. But that knowledge has come with an unintended cost: a diminished ability to marvel. Because of its familiarity, the work of God’s fingers (see Ps. 8:3) is less likely to create reverence in our hearts.
Thankfully, that wasn’t the case for the shepherds keeping watch the night Christ was born. They’re essential to the Christmas story, yet we know precious little about the men who first heard the news. Beyond their occupation and where they were that evening, we can be sure only that “the angel of the Lord came upon them . . . and they were sore afraid” (Luke 2:9 KJV).
Picture them wrapped in animal skins, sitting side by side on the stony ground, elbows resting on their bent knees. For these men, it was an ordinary night, no different than the others they’d spent in pastures or on sylvan hillsides. Away from civilization, they spent their evenings in quiet darkness, holding court with the stars.
I like to think that, no matter how many times they’d seen the sky, they still looked in rapt fascination at the canopy of planets and constellations suspended above their heads. American author Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose beliefs were admittedly more deist than divine, believed this was possible. Even he recognized the beauty of God’s handiwork—so much so, in fact, that his essay “Nature” contains these words: “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown!”
Perhaps the shepherds searched the skies because they remembered the promise in Isaiah—“The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them” (9:2)—and faithfully kept a silent vigil while others slept. That night, they waited like sentinels on the wall of the world, and in an instant, the spot where they sat in inky darkness overflowed with heaven’s light and the “glory of the Lord” (Luke 2:9).
Maybe all those years of stargazing left them open to wonder, able to “receive the kingdom of God like a child” and be filled to bursting with joy (Luke 18:17). From the moment the world was created, these ceremonially unclean shepherds—unlearned men at the bottom of Israel’s social hierarchy—became God’s first tellers, the blessed few who left their sheep to find the Lamb. It was they He chose to share the “good news of great joy which will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10). And they pursued Him with single-minded determination and eagerness. The shepherds decided to “go straight to Bethlehem” rather than wait until morning, and they did so “in a hurry” to see if what they’d been told was true (vv. 15-16).
I can see them sharing the story with Mary and Joseph, chattering excitedly and gesturing with calloused hands as they tried to recapture the moment, keeping their voices hushed so as not to wake the infant Messiah. And when the time came to leave, “The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them” (v. 20). Their role in the nativity story was over, but their astonishment and worship must have lasted a lifetime.
Their joy should be ours as well, but too often we lose sight of its Source. Instead of spending the Christmas season stargazing as the shepherds did, we settle for a myopic, glittery version of the holiday that clouds our spiritual vision. We forget that we no longer wander in the gloom but are instead “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession.” Every day, Christmas included, we are tasked with telling “the excellencies of Him who has called [us] out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). The ability to experience and “repeat the sounding joy” of Christ’s coming is limited only by our capacity. So this season, may we once again turn our faces to heaven and drink in the expansive radiance of the stars.