As much as I think I know the Christmas story, I learned something new this year. I learned the shepherds, who so carefully tended their flocks in the fields near Jesus’ birthplace, were likely raising sheep that would be used for temple sacrifice.
I suppose the shepherds knew they weren’t just raising cute, fluffy sheep purely for companionship. But I have to think raising sheep for less violent purposes, such as to provide wool that would keep others warm, would be easier.
The Bethlehem shepherds, however, may have been raising sheep whose one purpose would be to die at a young age (sheep used for temple offerings were to be sacrificed at one year of age). Without going into a lot of detail about the daily life of shepherds, it took a lot of effort to tend sheep. When one got lost, the shepherds searched for it. In winter, when there were no pastures on which to graze, the shepherds were responsible for feeding their sheep by other means. When sheep were kept out in the open, the shepherds had to keep watch at night. I can imagine that exhaustion and sleep deprivation were common. I’m sure I would’ve been a crabby shepherd.
Pondering these shepherds near Bethlehem, I find myself thinking “What’s the point?” You pour your heart and soul, time and energy into these creatures who will be killed. For the shepherds, I suppose the point is their ability to make a living. But, still, the exercise of raising sheep for the purpose of slaughtering them for sacrifice, after just one year of age, seems futile.
The exercise of raising sheep for the purpose of slaughtering them for sacrifice, after just one year of age, seems futile.
Raising sheep for food or warmth is one thing. But raising them to fulfill a bloody and gruesome church ritual seems ridiculous. We are not saved by that ritual. We are saved by the blood of Jesus.
There are meaningful similarities between Jesus and these slaughtered lambs. The lambs spoke of a promised savior who would do what they do. By enacting the ritual sacrifice year after year of a young, unblemished lamb whose blood would be sprinkled on the altars and the doorposts, the early Jews kept the evil one at bay.
Then, on a night more than 2000 years ago, sheep who were being tended for a sacrificial purpose would follow their shepherds to the place where the human version of this sacrifice had finally appeared, as a baby, innocent and, likely, very cute. He was raised by parents who probably loved him more than they could’ve ever described. I wonder about Mary’s thought process after her son, the baby she had raised, was killed. I wonder if she ever wondered what the point was. At least in the first two days after his death, I wonder if she ever thought that raising him, only to suffer, was futile.
I’ve been thinking about death and life’s futility a lot this year. Unfortunately, death is ever-present for all of us. But this year, it hit closer to home. In one particular instance, death took the daughter of a very good friend of mine. I watched my friend raise her daughter, but never imagined I would watch her bury her. I also watched my grandmother suffer loss and bury her companion of 71 years. I have found myself wondering, “What is the point of this life when it brings us such suffering?”
I am reminded this Christmas that life is a passage to eternity. It, and the hurt it brings, is only temporary. The point is what comes after. Our lamb came. He, innocent and unblemished, was sacrificed so that our life won’t end at death.
Our lamb came.
We must remind each other of that in this life, so that when it passes away, we can rejoice for eternity with Jesus and all those who have gone before us. Thank you, Lamb of God, for your incredible sacrifice and the promise it brings.