And in that region there were shepherds out in the field keeping watch over their flocks by night. -Luke2:8
Being a shepherd was certainly not a glamorous job. It involved herding a large number of sheep to go into a specific direction. Of course, the sheep don’t have the power of persuasion and reason that human beings have, so this was a tough task. Oftentimes the ratio of sheep could be 100 sheep to one shepherd. Predatory animals like wolves often attacked the sheep, so in addition to keeping his sheep united, the shepherd also had to keep them safe. At night, the shepherd would station himself at the gate of the sheep pen where he could protect the doorway of the pen from predators. He had to sleep with one eye open it would seem, so as not to be caught by surprise. And because he had nothing but the moon and the stars for light, he had to be extra vigilant from an attack in the dark. Combine this with the changing seasons, some of those winter nights could be moonless, long and cold. Being a shepherd was a hard job.
Then you contrast the warmth of Bethlehem on the night of the Nativity with the cold of the countryside, and on top of suffering from fear and the elements, the shepherds also suffered from isolation. They knew what was going on in Bethlehem and knew they were excluded from it but the shepherds were faithful. They didn’t abandon their flocks. They didn’t rise up in protest. The icons of the Nativity show the shepherds modeling patience and faithfulness to their task, difficult as it was.
Many times in church circles, a priest will refer to his congregation as his ”flock.” This seems appropriate, given the image of the Christians as sheep and the clergy, representing Christ, as the shepherds. When I was a young priest, I was entrusted with a small flock at a small parish. Having grown up in a large parish that was always filled with people on Sundays, and having served for one year as a Deacon to the Bishop of Boston where every service was celebrated in a full church, it was an adjustment to celebrate the liturgy with a “flock” of only a few people. I constantly thought of the day I ‘d get a larger flock, and was envious of priests that I thought had better flocks than I did.
Over time, however, I have learned to love the flock with which I have been entrusted, and I have learned to “keep watch over” the flock as best I can. On Christmas and Holy Week, that flock will number more people than I can count. On a Sunday, the flock fills the church. On a weekday service, the flock may be only a few. When someone comes for confession, I keep watch over a flock of one. I’ve learned that keeping watch over the flock means to give the best you can whether the flock numbers one or one hundred or one thousand. It also means to love the flock you have, rather than looking at other flocks around you and wishing you were THEIR shepherd.
Society puts so much pressure on people to be a certain thing, or look a certain way, or own certain possessions. Christmas shopping becomes a competition to keep up with the Joneses. Many people struggle with the same issue I struggled with years ago (and once in a while still struggle with)-they have a hard time embracing the flock that they have. Some people wish they had a different spouse, or more (or less) children, or a better job. The teacher wishes for a different class. The lawyer for a bigger client. The doctor for a patient that is going to get better. The coach for the better team. The business owner for more success. Many times we are so preoccupied with looking at other flocks that we don’t nurture the flock that has been entrusted to us. So, if your flock is one child, a difficult class, a patient that isn’t going to get better, a mediocre team, or a struggling business, watch over YOUR flock as best you can. For the Lord crowns not success, but effort. We can’t always control success, but we can always control effort.
As I meditate on today’s verse, my eye goes to the word “their.” The shepherds were keeping watch over THEIR flocks by night. They weren’t looking at the flocks of others. They weren’t rebelling because they weren’t in Bethlehem. They were making the best of what they had. So watch over your flock today-your family, your co-workers, your students, patients, and customers. Even when it gets dark and cold and monotonous, even when you are in the fields and others are in the city, watch over YOUR flock. For as we will read in the next reflection, it was not busy Bethlehem that saw the glory of the Lord, but the shepherds who were watching THEIR flocks.
O Christ our God, who at all times and at every hour, both in heaven and on earth, are worshipped and glorified, long suffering and plenteous in mercy and compassion; who love the just and show mercy to the sinners; who call all men to salvation through the promise of the blessings to come: Do You, the same Lord, receive also our supplications at this present time, and direct our loves according to Your commandments. (Prayer of the Hours, from the Royal Hours of the Nativity, Trans. Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
May God bless and protect you and your flock today!
~Father Stavros N. Akrotirianakis, LET ALL CREATION REJOICE: Reflections for Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany