Advent in Art 05: Adoration of the Shepherds

Betty Drew-Diprose
Sunday, 4 December 2005

Adoration of the Shepherds
Matthias Stomer

Reflections by Betty Drew-Diprose

As a youngster I saw my older brother Ralph, clad in oilskins, southwester and boots make his way out into the cold on a lambing beat.  It was amazing how many lambs were born during some of the bleakest weather.  He would come back with two or three lambs whose mothers had died or maybe a lamb from a mother who had had twins, and only wanted one of them. Most times these lambs would be yellowed with mucous and barely alive.  We would feed them with warm milk, wrap them up and put them in straw-lined boxes on the hearth by the coal range.  Most likely by the next morning the lambs would be out of their boxes, wobbling gingerly around the kitchen floor, baaing, waiting to be fed. Once they were strong enough they were adopted.  Ralph had to skin the dead lamb, cutting holes for the legs, which the lamb wore like a cloak.  The ewe would recognise the smell and adopt it as her own.  Others we reared as pets.  The life of a shepherd in New Zealand is a busy one.  They have to always think ahead to the next thing that needs to happen for their stock.  Each paddock must have water troughs or access to water of some kind.  There has be enough food all the year round to support the animals.  Extra food crops need to be grown.  As a kid I often rounded up the sheep to put them on the choumollier, but only for a limited period, otherwise they would gorge themselves and die.  There was drenching, docking, and shearing.  Dags to cut off and toenails to attend to.  Fences needed to be erected or repaired so that stock didn’t get into the neighbour’s place.  Along with other animals we had 500 breeding ewes, which needed to be culled and lambs sent to the Freezing works. 
A shepherd’s life in the time of Jesus was very different.  Their flocks were small and there were no fences to contain them, they relied on the shepherd for everything.   Each sheep had a name, and was known intimately by the shepherd.  He would have known the name of its mother and its father, its grandparents, and great grandparents and so on.  Several different flocks were rounded up at night and placed in an enclosure.  Sometimes a person would be hired to look after the sheep – part of his job would be to lie on the ground in the opening of the enclosure to protect the sheep from harm.  The next morning each shepherd would call out their sheep by name.  They knew his voice and would follow him out of the fold and to the next grazing area. A shepherd was always on the lookout for new pasture and a watering hole. 
Jesus likened himself to the Shepherd when he said “I am the Good shepherd, the Good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep, not like the hired worker who takes off at the first sign of trouble. The Good Shepherd was willing to die to keep his sheep safe.  He has a lot of investment in his sheep; and if necessary would leave the flock to search for a missing one. They were his livelihood and his family.
Last week Sarah talked about the annunciation – the story of the angel Gabriel’s visit of Mary.  Let us continue the story beginning with the birth of Jesus.
Luke 2 :
The Birth of Jesus
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

The Shepherds and the Angels
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Whew what an experience and what a powerful message to receive.
Have you ever asked yourself why God entrusted the shepherds with such an important message and not the religious leaders?  Shepherds were generally despised by the orthodox good people of the day because they were unable to keep the many rules and regulations required by the ceremonial law;  they were far too busy looking after their sheep.
Some people have jokingly said that they were the only ones outside and awake at night or that only they would know how to find a stable!!!. I think its because they were open and in touch with the world around them and able to be reached by God. It was to these simple men of the fields that God’s message first came.
In the Hebrew scriptures God has had a close association with shepherds, we only have to think of Moses, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob they were all shepherds with many flocks. David a mere shepherd boy was chosen by God, to be a great King. David wrote many of the Psalms with the eye and heart of a shepherd. Shepherds figure high in God’s plan and estimation. 

It is interesting to note that when a boy was born it was customary for a troupe of local musicians to gather at the house to welcome him with simple music. But, because Jesus was born in a stable in Bethlehem and far away from home this ceremony could not be carried out.  It is fitting then that the birth of Jesus would be heralded by a multitude of heavenly beings.  Can you hear them, wave upon wave of beautiful, clear ringing music, how glorious, and what a sight it must have been. I fancy they had a farewell party for Jesus when he left heaven, and now its time to party again welcoming him to his new place in the world, earth.   He’s the adored Son of God and definitely not forgotten by the heavenly host who also love and respect him and tell the shepherds where to find him.

It is with this knowledge of the shepherds and gospel story that we look at this painting before us today. 

We have before us a painting by Mattias Stomer or Stom a Dutchman who lived between 1600 – 1650.  It is entitled Adoration of the Shepherds, which happens to be one of many which he painted on this theme.  He was adept at including unusual material, like one where he included a shepherd holding a rooster, a veiled comment on Peter denying his Lord. 
He seemed to enjoy painting scenes of high drama and passion.  Included in his works are paintings of the head of John the Baptist, Pilate washing his hands, Sarah supplying Abraham with Hagar.  Rachel and her son Jacob deceiving Isaac on his death bed. Samson and Delilah.
Although he was born in Holland Stomer spent most of his adult life in Italy, where he was profoundly influenced by the artist Caravaggio and his followers.  Caravaggio’s art created strong effects by the bold contrast of light and dark it was his passionate belief that it was the simple in spirit, the humble and the poor, who held the mysteries of faith fast within their souls.
Like a moth drawn to the light I am compelled by this work.  My eyes are pulled by the magnetic strength of the Christ child.  We are left in no doubt as to who He is.  This central figure is the One who claimed to be the Light of the World and the One who would dispel all surrounding darkness.
We notice the way the swaddling cloth and
Jesus are arranged in the form of a cross, a tying together of this sacred birth with the crucifixion and the resurrected light offered by Christ.
The child’s arms are outstretched towards the shepherd whose stance is similar, as though in movement toward each other.  This very alert shepherd has fine aquiline features, slender fingers and is dressed more like a cloth merchant than a shepherd. Perhaps the artist depicted himself, as the one adoring the Christ child.  Beside him stands a shepherdess, again a little unusual, maybe He was making the statement that Jesus coming brought salvation for all people, and that men and women held equal importance in God’s scheme of things. The Shepherdess’s gaze is sweet and eminates warmth.
Barely noticeable, in the darkened background is a head and neck of an ox. It appears to be half asleep and at peace with the world.
Mary is painted as a peasant girl symbolically clothed in red and blue. These colours in the Eastern icon tradition signify humanity and divinity.  Perhaps for Stomer they represented Mary’s earthly belonging and her subsequent heavenly one.   I love the way Mary is holding the cloth as though showing off a beautiful piece of embroidery. By the way she is holding open the cloth she is inviting the gaze of others, as though it was a window on the life of her precious firstborn son. Mary, is pictured as she often is, silent and still as though swimming in a deep river of thought, barely believing the mystery of God before her.
We have only Joseph left in this remarkable, intimate painting. Joseph is pictured by our artist leaning on a staff standing slightly behind Mary. He is much older than she is.  His face is worn and seems to be leathery in appearance, perhaps he is wearied and still in shock by the events of the last days and months.

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to attend a churches 125year celebration.  It was very entertaining and enjoyable until it came to the time of recognising those who had worked at the church in a ministerial capacity.  I had worked as one of the minister for 11 years and left at the end of 2001.  For some reason they overlooked me and carried on with the programme.  I was very embarrassed as those around me noticed and started questioning what was happening.  About five or ten minutes later, it actually seemed a lot longer than that, someone recognised the mistake and made reference to my work at the church.  By this time I was struggling and felt rather goofy as I stood up at their behest to acknowledge the applause.
Now you might wonder why I am telling you all this, well subsequently as I have gone over that event and discovered some things in my life that need attending to, I have also quite miraculously  discovered contemplating the life of Joseph to be a tremendous help. You see I nearly overlooked him when I was considering this painting, he was in the shadows, behind Mary, perhaps the furtherest away from the central figure of Jesus. The more I thought about Joseph’s role the more I understood and my own.  His was a supportive presence for the main players in the story. Without his faithfulness where would Mary have been? Joseph had listened and been obedient to God. He had stood by Mary and supported her as her body changed shape with the growth of her baby. Imagine how he felt travelling to Bethlehem with a very pregnant wife on a donkey, trying to make sure Mary’s ride was bearable, and that they had enough food and water for the journey.  Imagine his disappointment at not being able to find a suitable place to stay, and finally being shown a stable to bed down for the night.  And then to top it off Mary goes into labour. Scripture doesn’t tell us but maybe Joseph, was also called upon to be the midwife at the birth of God’s son.
Joseph and Mary were both entrusted with the task of parenting Jesus. At Joseph’s side Jesus would have learnt many things about life and death. He learnt how to work with wood and what it meant to be a good fair tradesman.  Joseph was a good man.

Whatever role we play in life whether it be the centre of the picture, close by or at the side, I’m sure we will benefit from taking the time to contemplate this beautiful painting in the light of the reflections that Brenda has prepared on the Advent cards.  May God bless you.

I want to close by reading a poem written by an Irishman Padraig Daly.  Entitled Christmas

We listen to the story again:
 An exotic visitor
Comes to a country girl
 In a mountain town
And nine months afterwards
God’s wisdom is a footling child.

Shepherds arrive to the place,
Summoned by music;
And scholars from some distant part,
Tracking the light.
But why did not the sun, for awe,
Lose its footing in the sky?
Why did seas not charge across the astonished land
Why did every horse in every paddock everywhere
Not break into delirious chase?
By what foul means were linnets stilled?
And how can we,
Loving so little
Fettered by knowledge
Believe in such excessive Love?