Shepherd and king are two of the loneliest professions. Shepherds are heirs of Abel whose offering was favored by God and whose blood still cries from the ground. Kings possess what we strive for, but pay the price of distance and objectification. But it was shepherds and kings who were invited guests at the first Christmas in a stable.
Enoch and the descendants of Cain were the builders of cities, and therefore the taproot of kings. Anthropologists tell us that in pre-history whenever the two met, farming cultures in the end prevailed over nomadic herdsmen and hunter-gatherer cultures, because farming occasioned the leisure which gave birth to complex technologies, political organization and expansion. Shepherds had nothing that could be described as leisure. They were men of watchful alertness and the rugged business of guiding and protecting their flocks. They were not men of ornament and refinement but rather men of loneliness and perhaps, mysticism.
David was shepherd, mystic and king. While his brothers were in the fraternity of the camp, David was alone among the flocks. When sent by his father to bring supplies to his brothers he was outside of the contagion of fear that had paralyzed the camp. Though he was the youngest he mocked his brothers. He slew Goliath not with sword and spear and shield forged in cities, but with a primitive slingshot and a stone. From the moment David held up the head of Goliath he was king in the hearts of the Israelites. “Saul has slain his thousands and David his tens of thousands” they sang. David went from the solitude of the shepherd to the solitude of the king.
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Our natures being what they are, we think that what is given by God is ours to keep, and so we resist when God takes it back. Saul resisted God’s choice of David as the new king and repeatedly sought to kill David, but through the mysticism learned in a shepherd’s solitude David subdued Saul. David would play music for Saul to soothe him when madness came.
Jonathan, the son of Saul and heir apparent, was the friend of David. Along with the strangely beautiful asymmetrical friendship between Ruth and Naomi, the friendship between Jonathan and David is one of the two great portraits of friendship in scripture. The Greeks have five different words for love, and each of them, except Agape, has some element of self-interest. Agape is God-like love; love directed solely towards the good of the other. Jonathan’s love for David is at odds with Saul’s storge, or family love for Jonathan. It is not heteiria, the love of shared struggle, for though both David and Jonathan struggle, theirs are not the same sorts of struggles; it is not the erotic love of longing or the philia love found between two self-same souls. Jonathan’s love of David is more of a love for God and for God’s will which is to be carried out through David. Jonathan is in a way like a priest. The job of the priest is to offer sacrifice, and Jonathan lays at the altar of sacrifice his own claim to the throne of Saul for the sake of the high priest David. It is like the lonely friendship between Sam and Frodo amid the desolate craggy heights.
But the kingship of David is like the kingship of Adam; squandered and then redeemed. As king, David sows the wind and reaps the whirlwind, seducing Bathsheba, murdering her righteous husband Uriah, ignoring the rape of his daughter Tamar by his son Amnon and thereby provoking the rebellion of his son Absalom. The final portrait of David is as shepherd king alone in a tempest of blood and regret. His last words to his son Solomon, who was to succeed him, order the death of his enemy Shimei: “…You are a prudent man and will know how to deal with him to send down his hoary head in blood to the grave” (1 Kings 2:9).
But like the first Adam, David is redeemed by the new Adam—Christ Jesus. The genealogy of Jesus traces back through the beautiful, glorious, broken and tragic David. David was a man after God’s own heart and there must be an echo of David, the shepherd king, in the first attendants at the birth of Christ.
Christmas is warmth and abundance and love and togetherness in remembrance of an original scene that had none of those things. It is not wrong that families get together to pray and eat and drink and laugh and exchange gifts, but it is wrong if we think that such a scene is the only Christmas or the truest Christmas. We must remember that Christmas celebrates the birth of our Lord and Savior not in warmth and luxury but in a stable; that Joseph, the father, was a mystic, to whom no word is ascribed in scripture and Mary, Jesus’ mother, was just a girl but also the new Eve, the mother of the Redeemer and a redeemed humanity. Finally, we must remember that the guests were all strangers, not just to the Holy Family, not just to each other, but shepherds and kings, men outside of the consolations of friendship. Religious paintings capture an essential truth when they show the faces of these men aglow with the light of the newborn Savior. There is a deep, mysterious Christmas enchantment reserved for the lonely and desolate. Their earthly loneliness provides a richer contrast highlighting the end of loneliness in the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Editor’s note: The image above titled “The Adoration of the Shepherds” was painted by Bartolome Esteban Murillo around 1668.