Sunday, December 31, 2023

When Jesus is Born, Angels Tell the Local Shepherds 1st


Illuminated Manuscript Annunciation to the Shepherds who are making music while the dog howls and the woman works with the wool. Sheep and their tenders are in an enclosure.

One of my favorite Christmas stories is the immediate announcement to the common shepherds, in fields near Bethlehem, of the birth of the Baby Christ Child.  That annunciation emphasized the symbolism of Jesus' birth.  Whom did the angels tell first? The community's outcasts, including some women working with the wool, who lived in the countryside year-round with dogs & sheep. And Mary immediately welcomed them to visit her New-Born Baby. Only later did the important; wealthy nobles from the East arrive. The common man came first, & these lovely little hand-drawn manuscript illustrations imagine the stunned herders hearing The Good News.

The annunciation to the shepherds in the Christian Bible, is in verses 8–20 of the 2nd chapter of the Gospel of Luke. Shepherds are portrayed tending their flocks out in the countryside near Bethlehem, when they are terrified by the appearance of an angel. The angel explains that it is a message of good news for all people, "Today in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths & lying in a manger."

After this, a great many more angels often appear, praising God with the words "Glory to God in the highest heaven, & on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests." Deciding to do as the angel had said, the shepherds travel to near-by Bethlehem, & find Mary & Joseph with the infant Jesus lying in the manger, just as they had been told. The adoration of the shepherds follows.

It is generally considered significant that this message was 1st given to shepherds, who were located on the lower rungs of the social ladder. 

The annunciation to the shepherds appeared as a subject for art in the 9th century, & it became less common as an independent subject in art from the late Middle Ages, but depictions continued in later centuries. 

In Renaissance art, drawing on classical stories of Orpheus, the shepherds are sometimes depicted with musical instruments. Actually, many Christmas carols mention the annunciation to the shepherds, with the Gloria in Excelsis Deo being the most ancient. 

Phillips Brooks'(1835-1893) "O Little Town of Bethlehem" (1867) has the lines "O morning stars together, proclaim the holy birth, / And praises sing to God the King, & peace to men on earth!" The originally German carol "Silent Night" has "Shepherds quake at the sight; / Glories stream from heaven afar, / Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!" 

Charles Wesley's (1707-1788) "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" (1739) begins:
Hark! The herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth, & mercy mild,
God & sinners reconciled!"
Joyful, all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With th'angelic host proclaim,
"Christ is born in Bethlehem!"

Anglo-Irish poet & lyricist, Nahum Tate's (1652-1715) carol "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks" (1700) is entirely devoted to describing the annunciation to the shepherds, & the episode is also significant in "The First Nowell", "Angels We Have Heard on High," & several others.

The carol "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day", written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) during the American Civil War, reflects on the phrase "Peace on earth, good will to men" in a pacifist sense, as does "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear."

The phrase "Peace on earth, good will to men" has been widely used in a variety of contexts. For example, Samuel Morse's (1791-1873) farewell message in 1871 read "Greetings & thanks to the telegraph fraternity throughout the world. Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, good will to men. – S. F. B. Morse."

More recently, Linus recites the scene verbatim at the climax of Charles M Schultz (1922-2000) A Charlie Brown Christmas, explaining that "that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown." imagine the stunned herders hearing the news.