Several years ago, the pastor of our New Jersey Catholic parish returned from a trip to Israel and told us an amazing story. While visiting the birthplace of Jesus, the guide escorting them looked at our pastor and said, “Father, I would bet that not even you know the significance of these passages from the Gospel of Luke.”
“And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David,a5 to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.b6 While they were there, the time came for her to have her child,7and she gave birth to her firstborn son.* She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.c8* Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock.9The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear.d10The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.11* e For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.12And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
The guide went on to explain that for centuries after the very first Passover, it was the responsibility of the shepherds to procure the lambs for the Passover sacrifice according to the instructions given in the book of Exodus.
Your lamb must be a year-old male and without blemish.
Therefore, the shepherds would set aside every firstborn male lamb for the Feast of the Passover that would take place in Jerusalem. It was of great concern to the shepherds that these particular lambs remain without blemish in order to comply perfectly with God’s instructions. One of the problems they faced was that it was common for newborn lambs to try to walk too soon, before their legs were strong enough to fully support them. In those cases, the lamb would often inadvertently break one of their legs and therefore would no longer be without blemish. So it was common practice for the shepherds to wrap the baby lamb in swaddling clothes and place it in the manger until it was strong enough to go to its mother. This practice ensured that the lambs remained without blemish!
So how incredible, that God would glorify the methods used by the shepherds for preparing the Passover lamb by allowing his son, the ultimate Passover Lamb, the Lamb of God, to come into the world the very same way! It’s no wonder that God would send the angel to appear to the shepherds and deliver these words.
And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
The shepherds were in the unique position of understanding exactly what this meant. This would immediately click with them because this is precisely what THEY did! No further words had to be spoken to them by Mary and Joseph. When they saw, they knew exactly what this meant.
Imagine how they felt having been honored by God in this way. And hence these final words that were given to us by Luke. They went in haste!
When the angels went away from them to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”16So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger.17When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child.18All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds.19And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.20Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them.
May this understanding bring new meaning to the Christmas story, this Christmas season. And as all who heard, may we too be amazed. And may we too return, glorifying and praising God!