Recitative for soprano: "There were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night."
Andante: "And lo! The angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone around about them, and they were sore afraid."
"And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord."
Allegro: "And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heav'nly host praising God, and saying:"
Allegro chorus: "Glory to God, glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth." from George Frideric Handel's Messiah
This final supernatural encounter of the Christmas story has been the subject of countless artistic interpretations not to mention countless Christmas pageants and public nativity scenes, with little boy shepherds dressed in bathrobes and dish towels, and little girl angels fluttering about, halos and wings bouncing with excitement. It seems likely that even in our secular western society, many still know the story of angels appearing to shepherds in the night.
Know, not believe. Hosts of angels really are in the same category as Santa's workshop and elves, and for the same reason: they don't exist.
Such creatures give Christianity trouble. Modern, rational thinkers can't buy into angels.
I find it interesting that recent exotic theories about the universe and the possibility of extra dimensions (super-string theory, M-theory, branes, multiverses) suggest that whole other universes might exist in some parallel connection to ours. They would exist in dimensions that make them invisible to us. Travel between these universes may or may not be possible, depending on the theory du jour. But if such travel were possible, a being entering our universe from a parallel one would seem to appear from nowhere. On leaving, it would vanish, as if it had no material body.
This sort of thing is being proposed by (mostly) sane physicists and mathematicians who are attempting to find ways to unify what we know and understand about the universe with a great many things that make no sense unless such wild-eyed notions as parallel universes are resorted to.
Serious scientists dream up these things multiple universes, dimensional membranes and they are not locked up and evaluated for mental illness! Quite to the contrary, they are urged on and funded by major universities and the National Science Foundation!
To me, this suggests that angelic appearances, as bizarre as they are to our rational minds, might not be entirely anti-rational.
But why shepherds? What an unlikely bunch to have received such a glorious message. If I were God, I would have written the announcement in the stars in every language on the earth!
Or maybe not. This baby, this Jesus Christ Son of God was being born into a very real historical time to a very anonymous and powerless couple. Too much hoopla would have created risk, a risk that becomes clearer later in the story when Herod orders all the youngest children in the area executed, out of his fear that a competitor king has been born to the Jews.
I think in politics they call this plausible deniability. The armies of God appeared to a few shepherds with an important message and who will believe the testimony of shepherds? The word spreads through Bethlehem, but quickly dies away as the child grows and matures in the peaceful anonymity of Jewish peasantry.
We're left today with the ancient testimony of shepherds, an ancient claim that a child's birth was heralded by angels who called him a Savior. This all happened in Bethlehem, in Judea, a tiny town coincidentally mentioned briefly by the Jewish prophet Micah in 720 B.C.:
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village in Judah. Yet a ruler of Israel will come from you, one whose origins are from the distant past. The people of Israel will be abandoned to their enemies until the time when the woman in labor gives birth to a son. Then at last his fellow countrymen will return from exile to their own land. And he will stand to lead his flock with the Lord's strength, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. Then his people will live there undisturbed, for he will be highly honored all round the world. And he will be the source of our peace. Micah 5:2-5
Illustration credit: The annunciation to the shepherds, Benjamin Gerritsz. Cuyp