Shepherds working in the Bethlehem area when Jesus Christ was born on the first Christmas had their time on the job interrupted in a spectacular way -- with angels breaking into the earthly dimension from heaven! The angels had an incredible announcement to make to the shepherds. Here's what happened that night:
In Luke 2:8-12, the Bible describes the scene in the Bethlehem area during the first Christmas: "And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the 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 and lying in a manger.'"
God could have chosen to reveal this incredible announcement first to anyone on Earth. But rather than assigning the angel to visit some of the most prestigious people in society, God sent the angel to speak to humble shepherds, who some people didn't consider important, but were very important from God's perspective.
The shepherds would have been watching over their flocks while the sheep and lambs rested or grazed on grass from the hillsides. While the shepherds were prepared to deal with any wolves or even robbers that threatened their animals, they were shocked and scared by witnessing an angel's appearance.
The angel reassured the terrified shepherds that he had good news to give them. Since the shepherds raised the lambs that were sacrificed to atone for people's sins each spring on Passover, the shepherds would have well understood the importance of the Messiah's arrival to save the world from sin. Many historians believe that Jesus Christ was actually born in the spring around Passover, rather than during the winter (the Roman emperor Constantine chose December 25th as the date for celebrating Christmas much later -- in the 4th century AD -- to direct people's attention away from pagan winter solstice rituals and to Christmas instead). The Bible refers to Jesus as the "lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world" in John 1:29, because of his sacrificial death to atone for sin once and for all.
The Bible passage continues in Luke 2:13-14: "Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.'"
Long before electric lights were invented, the fields around Bethlehem would have been quite dark. Suddenly an intensely bright light broke into the black night, as the sky above Bethlehem filled with a multitude of angels. In John 8:12 of the Bible, Jesus says about himself: 'I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.'" The announcement of his birth was marked by the light of many angels appearing in all of their heavenly glory.
The Bible continues the story in Luke 2:15-18: "When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them."
Imagine what it must have been like to have been a part of those conversations! Even in the days before media such as television and the Internet, word traveled fast that something amazing was happening.
The Bible passage concludes in Luke 2:19-20: "But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told."
Just as the shepherds were excited, Mary was also excited about the impact that her son's birth was already starting to have on the world. She treasured it all. When the shepherds returned to their work in the fields after visiting the newborn Jesus, they praised God for what he had done.