One December, I saw a clever sign on the marquee of a Christian church: “Christmas is not your birthday!” I got their point, but I still had to disagree because I was born right on December 25th. When I was younger, my parents were afraid my birthday would get overlooked in the holiday rush, so they made a big banner that hung in our home: “Happy Birthday to Jesus and Brad!” They also started a tradition of putting up two trees—one for Jesus and one for me. The idea was that my brothers would put a present for me under each tree—a plan that worked well until my older brother bought me a pair of mittens. He placed one mitten under the Christmas tree and the other under the birthday tree, and everything went downhill from there. These days, most of my gifts come with a “Merry Birthday” card to cover both occasions. Here’s one I received from my cousin:
Being born on Christmas Is quite unique because You never know who brought you— The stork or Santa Claus.
Despite the drawbacks, my Christmas birthday has always added sparkle to the season and given me a different perspective. Another thing that changed my perspective about Christmas was going to the Holy Land. I had always pictured in my mind a stable and manger made of wood, but our guide in Bethlehem told us Christ was probably born in a cave, and the manger would have been made out of stone. Similarly, I had always thought of the shepherds’ fields as rolling, green hills, like something you would see in Ireland or New Zealand. Instead, I found out that the “fields” were rock-covered hills without much vegetation at all. Our local guide, a Palestinian Christian named Sam, talked to us about shepherds.
The Role of a Shepherd
Sam told us that shepherding in ancient Israel was difficult and demanding work— a 24-hour-a-day job. There were always people who were willing to do the work for money, but they lacked the dedication and devotion shown by shepherds who actually owned their sheep. It is no surprise then that we read in the scriptures, “The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep” (John 10:13).
Sam drew our attention to the caves that pockmarked the hills across from us. “These were sheepfolds at night,” he explained. In Christ’s time, shepherds typically tended small flocks of 30 to 50 sheep so they could separate from each other during the day and not overrun the same pastures and water sources.
At night, though, they brought the flocks together to protect them from wolves, jackals, and robbers. Some of the caves held more than 200 sheep. Several shepherds would work together to block the front of a cave with stones, leaving a narrow entrance through which only one or two sheep could pass at a time. The shepherds would then lead the sheep into the fold and rotate guard duty, taking turns sitting so as to block the entrance to the cave while the others slept. Sam said, “The shepherd on duty didn’t just guard the door. He became the door.” No wonder the Savior once said, “I am the door of the sheep” (John 10:7) and “He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, . . . the same is a thief and a robber” (John 10:1).
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By morning, sheep from different flocks had mixed together. No one knew which sheep belonged to which shepherd until the shepherds took turns standing at the entrance and whistling or calling in their own distinct ways. Then each shepherd’s sheep would recognize his call and come forward. As sheep passed through the narrow entrance, the shepherd would count them and make sure none were missed. Remember how the Savior said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).
Comfort in His Care
Anciently, the shepherd carried a rod and a staff. The rod was a club like a baseball bat, and the shepherd used it to beat away predators if they approached the flock. Just seeing the rod in the shepherd’s hand made the sheep feel safe and secure. The staff was a long pole the shepherd used to support himself while walking across rough and rocky terrain, but it also had a crook at the top that could be used to guide the sheep. If a sheep wandered too close to a hole, the shepherd would strike his staff against a rock to warn the straying sheep of danger. If the sheep failed to heed the warning and fell into the hole, the shepherd would reach out his staff and loop it around the sheep’s neck to lift it back to safety. In Psalm 24, David wrote, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).
Flies were not dangerous like wolves and hyenas, but they constantly irritated the sheep. The pesky insects would hover around the poor animals’ faces and land on their eyes and noses until the only way the sheep could find relief was to rub their heads against trees and rocks. This caused wounds on their faces, which attracted more flies, and the sheep would get caught in a vicious cycle. Relief came only when a caring shepherd put olive oil on a piece of cloth and dabbed it on the animals’ faces. The oil soothed the self-inflicted wounds and acted as an insect repellant. David may have been alluding to this practice when he wrote of his kind shepherd, “Thou anointest my head with oil” (Psalm 23:5).
He Knows Every Lamb
For years, our ward Primary leaders performed the Herculean feat of mounting an annual Nativity production in conjunction with a Christmas dinner. The children of the ward took their turns being Mary, Joseph, shepherds, and wise men. Of course, most were cast as angels and sheep. One year when I was helping out, one of the little girls complained, “I don’t want to be a sheep. I want to be Mary.”
“Why don’t you want to be a sheep?” I asked.
“Because there are so many of them,” she responded. “No one will even see me.”
“I will see you,” I promised.
Don’t we all sometimes feel the way that girl felt? With all of God’s numberless worlds filled with numberless children, who notices sheep number 32 on stage left? With all of Christ’s followers, how does He care for and love each of us individually?
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The Savior’s love for each individual is demonstrated in His experience with Jairus, who sought Him out and said, “My little daughter lieth at the point of death: I pray thee, come and lay thy hands on her, that she may be healed” (Mark 5:23). The Lord consented to come, but as they neared the house, they were met with the news: “Thy daughter is dead” (v. 35). Jesus said to the grief-stricken father, “Be not afraid, only believe” (v. 36).
When the Lord entered the house, He announced to all who were mourning that the girl was not dead, but only asleep. The scriptures report that “they laughed him to scorn” (v. 40). Nevertheless, Christ took the girl by the hand and said to her in Aramaic, “Talitha cumi.” The Bible gives us a translation: “Damsel, I say unto thee, arise” (v. 41). However, in James Hastings’s Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, we read that Talitha is a transliteration of the Aramaic noun for lamb. Just as in English, “Lamb” can be a term of endearment for a child.
Christ was not calling out to a young girl He did not know. He was calling out to His little lamb, whom He knew and loved dearly. “And straightway the damsel arose, and walked” (v. 42).
Truly our Savior owns us and is not a hireling. We are His, and He knows us by name. He does not run away when danger comes. He protects us with His rod and guides us with His staff. When we fall, He lifts us up and anoints our wounds with oil. Christ knows and cares for all His lambs.
This excerpt originally ran in the November/December 2018 issue of LDS Living.
Lead image from Shutterstock.
For more on everything the Good Shepherd does for us, check out Because of the Messiah in a Manger by Brad Wilcox, available at Deseret Book stores and deseretbook.com.