So, the shepherds.
Shepherds weren’t the most popular people back in the day. It was a despised occupation, smelly and often populated by miscreants, and, because sheep require 24/7 care, shepherds weren’t able to take part in the religious life of the nation. They were outsiders.
However, there’s a flip side to this, because in another sense the shepherds were intrinsically linked to the sacrificial system practiced in the Temple, the spiritual centre of Judaism at the time. The sheep tended on the fields outside Bethlehem were destined for sacrifice – without them, without the work of the shepherds, the sacred work of mediating between God and humanity would fall apart.
So we’ve got a despised underclass ostracised by the very religion they’re a part of. And ironically, as throughout the Christmas story, it’s the outsiders rather than priests and kings, who respond positively to the news of Christ’s birth – indeed, they’re deliberately summoned by the angels. Their being there is no accident.
(And, as this website points out, part of the job of the shepherds was to identify which sheep would make appropriate sacrifice at Passover. And given Christ’s sacrificial role during a Passover thirty years later, maybe the shepherds at the Nativity were also carrying out a ceremonial function…)
All of which raises an important issue. Who are the people currently despised by religious power and authority? And, if the circumstances of Jesus’s birth took place today, would these marginalised groups be summoned to the manger while pastors and popes spent their times defending their power to the exclusion of God?