Whether at crib services, Christingles or in the countless nativity plays performed across the country, the role of the shepherds is key.
Whether in specially made costumes or in hastily adapted tea towels, it is the shepherds who get to be the recipients and then heralds of “the good news of joy for all the people” – the birth of a Saviour, the Lord.
It was to the shepherds that St Luke records an angel appearing to give them the news that the Christ had come.
Not as the warrior king hoped for by those living under Roman occupation but rather as a child, born in poverty, but destined to change the course of the world.
But of all the people to be informed of this momentous news, why choose shepherds?
In first century Palestine shepherds stood on the bottom rung of the social ladder sharing the same status as the collaborating tax collectors.
Some interpreters cite the Mishnah, Judaism’s written record of the oral law, as evidence of the lowly status given to these rural dwellers.
One passage describes them as “incompetent”; another says no one should ever feel obligated to rescue a shepherd who has fallen into a pit, an unfortunate contrast to the sheep they cared for.
But the choice of shepherds reflects how God has a soft spot for those whom the world considers to be unlikely bearers of good news.
Just look at the twelve disciples.
As the Bishop of Burnley, Philip North, put it: “In order to found a movement to transform the world, Jesus called not the wealthy, the articulate or the powerful but a ragtag, chaotic bunch of third rate fishermen, busted tax collectors and clapped out rebels.
“He chose the poor and the weak and the powerless, he chose those who knew their utter dependency on God because they quite literally had nothing else to depend on, and with these keystone cop disciples he blew apart the whole meaning of what it is to be human.”
The shepherds and the fishermen, whose lives were to be transformed by the birth of Jesus, could never have expected to have been such a part of human history that their own stories are still being told today.
God has a way of turning our ordinary expectations into something truly extraordinary if only we will let Him.
And it is that promise of transformation that brings hope even at the seemingly most hopeless of times.
Whilst for many of us Christmas will be a time of joy and celebration, for others it will be a hard time marked by echoes of loss or experiencing this time of year for the first time without a loved one or doing so in the midst of difficulty.
The message of Advent – that time of hope shining through in the midst of darkness – finds its fulfilment at Christmas and is a reminder that even when the path ahead seems difficult, the hope brought about by the Christ child is held out to each of us.
The message given to the shepherds was not to fear – “do not be afraid”.
They are words that we need to hear afresh both as individuals and as a nation as we come to celebrate Christmas this year.
Over recent weeks, along with many others, I have been praying for our nation and its leaders as the Brexit debate and journey continues.
Whatever the final outcome may be, Christmas reminds me that even in times of uncertainty there is a True Light to guide the way.
Just over 100 years ago – in 1908 – the poet Minnie Haskins published a collection of poetry called The Desert which received little acclaim or attention from literary reviewers at the time.
One of the poems in that collection entitled God Knows was subsequently used by King George VI in his Christmas Day radio broadcast in 1939.
The country was at war – a time when fear and doubt mixed with uncertainty and the knowledge of the human cost that war brought.
At the end of the nine-minute broadcast the King ended his speech by quoting Minnie Haskin’s poem:
“I feel that we may all find a message of encouragement in the lines which, in my closing words, I would like to say to you: I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year,
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied: “Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.
May that Almighty Hand guide and uphold us all.”
It has been suggested that the poem had been drawn to the King’s attention by Queen Elizabeth, the present Queen’s mother, and the lines were to be recited 63 years later at her own funeral on April 4, 2002.
Whatever the year ahead may bring, my prayer will be that as a nation we take up that invitation to place our hand once more into the hand of God who led the shepherds, by the message of an angel, to the manger and the wise men, by a star, to the stable.
The hope that comes to us on Christmas Day does not burn out on Boxing Day, but rather burns bright to lead us each day through trial and temptation, through suffering and joy.
So as we prepare to embark together into the season of Christmas, may I wish you all a blessed and joyous time where the message of an angel to the shepherds is heard again:
“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy for all the people.”
As well as that of a multitude of the heavenly array, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, peace, good will among people.”
May the birth of Jesus Christ be a great joy for each of you this year and may the Good News of his life, death and resurrection sustain and guide you over the coming year. With prayers and blessing.
Dr John Serntamu is the Archbishop of York.