I still have shepherds on my mind.
No, I’m not in denial that the Christmas season is over. Even though the pine needles linger, the nativities and liturgies are put away for another year.
I still have shepherds on my mind because suddenly I’m seeing shepherds differently. I have the wonderful images from the “St. John’s Bible” to thank for this gift. While viewing pages from the manuscript at a Benedictine Monastery in Erie, my mother-in-law directed my attention to the opening illustration for the Gospel of Luke. The image is a stable scene: donkey, sheep, ox, Mary, the manger. Piercing this humble scene is a broad band of gold light. In the St. John’s Bible Project, gold represents the presence of God. Here, that presence is vividly presented: golden angels fluttering above, golden calligraphy calling forth the text, the gold band of light descending from above to the lowliest of the low and a swath of golden shepherds. But wait, golden shepherds? Why isn’t Mary, the very mother of God, swathed in a golden post-partum glow?
The golden shepherds draw the viewer into the scene so that we pay close attention. Here they’ve arrived, from the pasture, upon the heralding call of the angels. As the viewer looks closer, there is a second surprising element to the presence of these shepherds. They are all young women. One even carries a young baby girl.
When my mother-in-law pointed out this fascinating detail all of a sudden I felt embraced. I never realized until this moment I had not felt included at the manger scene. In every Christmas pageant I’ve ever seen, the young girls are angels. The young boys are shepherds. While I preferred wings to bathrobes, there was a certain set of expectations that come with characterizing an angel. Suddenly I was freed from the expected halo! All angelic demands fluttered silently away. I am a shepherd girl as well. A whole set of attributes were laid to angelic rest: pristine, perfect, quietly hovering all in white. With my stole draped over my shoulders like a lamb, the stole now holds a whole new set of attributes: strong, resilient, perseverant, dedicated, resolved.
At another nearby Benedictine community, the sisters host a Christmas time display of nativities from many nations. This time I had a specific purpose as I perused the scenes. Were there any shepherd girls? Among the one hundred plus nativities, two included shepherds that were clearly young girls. (Sometimes even the guy shepherds wore draping frocks!) Thankfully, the growing number of women in ministry is far beyond the dismal statistic of two among one hundred. As a female pastor, set out to pasture as shepherd of the sheep in my fold, I have a responsibility to nurture the young girls in our church who are growing in faith. Seeing young women not as angels to be, but as shepherds with strengths, changes everything.
You see, belief in a shepherd girl can change the world. Greg Mortensen, a candidate for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, has proven that as he has worked diligently to provide schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan for young women. Educating a young girl beyond the pasture and into a profession can shape a nation. Looking at the nativity scene anew, now I see shepherd girls from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and Peru. Jesus the Christ is within their reach. He will change their world. He will travel with them to fields and country-sides and pastures near and far.
For this year ahead, as Christmas and Epiphany unfold into Lent and Easter and then that onslaught of ordinary time, I have a photo on my desk to guide me. It’s of a young shepherd girl from China, aglow with bright cheeks and a turquoise wool sweater, cradling a young lamb in her hands. If I can remember her, each and every day of this new year, she will guide and direct my path as a shepherd as well.