Saturday, December 12, 2015

In the Picture: The sheep

Annunciation to the Shepherds
De Lisle Psalter
British Library 1310

Read: Matthew 19.27-30
Then Peter said in reply, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. 

Nativity plays are often full of animals; the “little donkey”, the oxen and asses, cattle lowing etc. but in reality the only animals mentioned in the story are the “flocks” over which the shepherds are watching. These were presumably sheep.
They would have looked rather different to the sheep we are used to seeing in our fields today, though. Modern sheep have been selectively bred to be fat, docile and with very thick wool. Ancient sheep were more like goats, tough, hardy, and rather more independent minded. They wouldn’t have been kept in fields either, but would have roamed the open countryside, guided and watched over by the shepherd, who would need to protect them from wolves and from straying. So what happened to the sheep in the nativity story when the shepherds rushed off to Bethlehem? We don’t know, because we aren’t told, but it’s a measure of how excited the shepherds were that they were prepared to abandon their sheep to go to find Jesus, just as his disciples later abandoned their fishing nets and tax collecting booths to follow him. We don’t know what the shepherds found when they returned to their flocks, but we do know that they don’t seem to have been sorry to have made the trip. They returned “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.”

  • Have you ever had a completely unexpected delight or honour, or the chance to be part of something important? What did it mean to you? 
  • If you were called away from your normal life to do something for God, what would you find it hardest to leave behind?
  • What do you think the sheep felt about all this? Have you ever been left out or left behind?

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