Christmas: Early Church Fathers on the Shepherds and the Angels

The following excerpts are from Thomas Aquinas’ Catena Aurea, or Golden Chain Commentary on the Gospels, a 13th century compilation of Bible commentary from over 80 early church fathers.

Luke 2

Verses 8-12

Ver 8. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10. And the angel said to them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11. For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. 12. And this shall be a sign to you; you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

AMBROSE Observe with what care God builds up our faith. An Angel teaches Mary; an Angel teaches Joseph; an Angel the shepherds also, of whom it is said, And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field.

CHRYS. To Joseph the Angel appeared in a dream, as to one who might be easily brought to believe, but to the shepherds in visible shape as to men of a ruder nature. But the Angel went not to Jerusalem, sought not for Scribes and Pharisees, (for they were corrupt and tormented with envy.) But these were simple men living in the ancient practices of Moses and the Patriarchs. There is a certain road which leads by innocence to Philosophy.

THEOPHYL No where; in the whole course of the Old Testament do we find that the Angels who so constantly appear to the Patriarchs, came in the day time. This privilege was rightly kept for this time, when there arose in the darkness a light to them that were s true of heart. Hence it follows, and the glory of God shone round about them. He is sent forth from the womb, but He shines from heaven. He lies in a common inn, but He lives in celestial light.

GREEK EX. They were alarmed at the miracle, as it follows, And they were afraid, &c.

But the Angel dispels their rising fears. He not only soothes their terrors, but pours gladness into their hearts; for it follows, For, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, &c. not to the Jewish people only, but to all. The cause of their joy is declared; the new and wonderful birth is made manifest by the very names.

It follows, For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. The first of these, i.e. the Savior, has reference to the action, the third, i.e. the Lord, to the dignity of the person.

CYRIL But that which is in the middle, namely, Christ, has reference to the adoration, and signifies not the nature, but the compound substance of two natures. For on Christ our Savior we confess the anointing to have been performed, not however figuratively, (as formerly on kings by the oil,) and as if by prophetic grace, nor for the accomplishment of any work, as it is said in Isaiah, Thus said the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus; who although he was an idolater was said to be anointed, that he might by the decree of Heaven take possession of the whole province of Babylon; but the Savior as man in the form of a servant, was anointed by the Holy Spirit as God He Himself by His Holy Spirit anoints those that believe in Him.

GREEK EX. He marks the time of our Lord”s nativity, when he says, Today, and the place when he adds In the city of David; and the signs thereof when it follows And there shall be a sign, &c. Now the Angels bring tidings to the shepherds of the Chief Shepherd ,as of a lamb discovered and brought up in a cave.

THEOPHYL The infancy of the Savior was impressed upon us, both by frequent heraldings of Angels and testimonies of Evangelists, that we might be the more deeply penetrated in our hearts by what has been done for us. And we may observe, that the sign given us of the newborn Savior was, that He would be found not clothed in Tyrian purple, but wrapped in poor swaddling clothes, not laying on gilded couches, but in a manger.

MAXIMUS But if perhaps the swaddling clothes are mean in your eyes, admire the Angels singing praises together If you despise this vile manger, raise your eyes a little, and behold the new star in heaven proclaiming to the world the Lord”s nativity. If you believe the mean things, believe also the mighty. If you dispute about those which betoken His lowliness, look with reverence on what is high and heavenly.

GREG. It was in a mystery that the angel appeared to the shepherds while they were watching, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, implying that they are thought worthy above the rest to see sublime things who take a watchful care of their faithful flocks; and while they themselves are piously watching over them, the Divine grace shines widely round about them.

THEOPHYL For in a mystery, those shepherds, and their flocks, signify all teachers and guides of faithful souls. The night in which they were keeping watch over their flocks, indicates the dangerous temptations from which they never cease to keep themselves, and those placed under their care. Well also at the birth of our Lord do shepherds watch over their flocks; for He was born who says, I am the good Shepherd: but the time also was at hand in which the same Shepherd was to recall His scattered sheep to the pastures of life.

ORIGEN But if we would rise to a more hidden meaning, I should say, that there were certain shepherd angels, who direct the affairs of men, and while each one of them was keeping his watch, an angel came at the birth of the Lord, and announced to the shepherds that the true Shepherd had arisen. For Angels before the coming of the Savior could bring little help to those entrusted to them, for scarcely did one single Gentile believe in God. But now whole nations come to the faith of Jesus.


Verse 13-14

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,14. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

THEOPHYL Lest the authority of a single Angel should appear small, as soon as one had revealed the sacrament of the new birth, straightway there was present a multitude of the heavenly host. Rightly has the attending Chorus of Angels received the name of heavenly host, seeing they both humbly bring their aid to that Leader mighty in battle, Who has appeared to put down the powers of the air, and also themselves by their celestial arms bravely vanquish those opposing powers lest they should prevail as they wish in tempting men. But because He is both God and man, rightly do they sing Peace to men and Glory to God.

As it follows, Praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest. As soon as one Angel, one messenger, had brought the good tidings that God was born in the flesh, the multitude of the heavenly host broke forth in the praise of the Creator, in order both to fix their devotion on Christ, and to instruct us by their example, that as often as any of the brethren shall sound forth the word of sacred learning, or we ourselves shall have brought these holy things home to our minds, we should with our whole heart, our mouths and hands, return praise to God.

CHRYS. Of old, indeed, Angels were sent to punish, as, for instance to the Israelites, to David, to the men of Sodom, to the valley of weeping. Now on the other hand they sing the song of thanksgiving to God: because He has revealed to them His coming down to men.

GREG. At the same time they also give praises because their voices of gladness accord well with our redemption, and while they behold our acceptance, they rejoice also that their number is completed.

THEOPHYL They wish also peace to men, as they add, On earth peace to men, because those whom they had before despised as weak and abject, now that our Lord has come in the flesh they esteem as friends.

CYRIL This peace has been made through Christ, for He has reconciled us by Himself to God and our Father, having taken away our guilt, which was the ground of offense also. He has united two nations in one man, and has joined the heavenly and the earthly in one flock.

THEOPHYL For whom they ask peace is explained in the words, Of good will. For them, namely, who receive the new born Christ. For there is no peace to the ungodly, but much peace to them that love the name of God.

ORIGEN But the attentive reader will ask, How then does the Savior say, I came not to send peace on the earth, whereas now the Angels” song of His birth is, On earth peace to men? It is answered, that peace is said to be to men of goodwill. For the peace which the Lord does not give on the earth is not the peace of good will.

AUG. For righteousness belongs to good will.

CHRYS. Behold the wonderful fill working of God. He first brings Angels down to men, and then brings men up to heaven. The heaven became earth, when it was about to receive earthly things.

ORIGEN But in a mystery, the Angels saw that they could not accomplish the work committed to them without Him Who was truly able to save, and that their healing fell short of what the care of men required. And so it was as if there should come one who had great knowledge in medicine, and those who before were unable to heal, acknowledging now the hand of a master, grudge not to see the corruptions of wounds ceasing, but break forth into the praises of the Physician, and of that God who sent to them and to the sick a man of such knowledge; the multitudes of the Angels praised God for the coming of Christ.


Verses 15-20

Ver 15. And it came pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even to Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us. 16. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. 17. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. 18. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. 19. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. 20. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told to them.

GREEK EX. The shepherds were filled with astonishment at the things that they saw and heard, and so they left their sheepfolds, and set out by night to Bethlehem, seeking for the light of the Savior; and therefore it is said, They spoke one to another, &c.

THEOPHYL As men who were truly watching, they said not, Let us see (the child; but) the word which has come to pass, i.e. the Word which was from the beginning, let us see how it has been made flesh for us, since this very Word is the Lord. For it follows, Which the Lord has made, and has shown to us; i.e. Let us see how the Lord has made Himself, and has shown His flesh to us.

AMBROSE How remarkably Scripture weighs the import of each word. For when we behold the flesh of the Lord, we behold the Word, which is the Son. Let not this seem to you a slight example of faith, because of the humble character of the shepherds. For simplicity is sought for, not pride. It follows, And they came in haste. For no one indolently seeks after Christ.

ORIGEN But because they came in haste, and not with loitering steps, it follows, They found Mary, (i.e. her who had brought Jesus into the world,) and Joseph, (i.e. the guardian of our Lord”s birth,) and the babe lying in the manger, (i.e. the Savior Himself.)

THEOPHYL It seems to succeed in due order, that after having rightly celebrated the incarnation of the Word, we should at length come to behold the actual glory of that Word. Hence it follows: But when they saw it, they made known the word which had been spoken to them.

GREEK EX. Beholding with hidden faith indeed the happy events which had been told them, and not content with marveling at the reality of those things which at the very first they saw and embraced when the Angel told them, they began to relate them not only to Mary and Joseph, but to the others also (and what is more they impressed them on their minds,) as it follows, And all who heard it marveled. For how could it be otherwise, at the sight of one of the heavenly host upon earth, and earth in peace reconciled to heaven; and that ineffable Child binding together in one, by His divinity, heavenly things, by His humanity, earthly things, and by this conjunction of Himself ejecting a wonderful union!

GLOSS. Not only do they marvel at the mystery of the incarnation, but also at so wonderful an attestation of the shepherds, men who could not have devised these unheard of things, but were with simple eloquence proclaiming the truth.

AMBROSE Esteem not the words of the shepherds as mean and despicable For from the shepherds Mary increases her faith, as it follows: Mary kept all these sayings, and pondered them in her heart. Let us learn the chastity of the sacred Virgin in all things, who no less chaste in her words than in her body, gathered up in her heart the materials of faith.

THEOPHYL For keeping the laws of virgin modesty, she who had known the secrets of Christ would divulge them to no one, but comparing what she had read in prophecy with what she now acknowledged to have taken place, she did not utter them with the mouth, but preserved them shut up in her heart.

GREEK EX. Whatever the Angel had said to her, whatever she had heard from Zacharias, and Elisabeth, and the shepherds, she collected them all in her mind, and comparing them together, perceived in all one harmony. Truly, He was God who was born from her.

ATHANAS. But every one rejoiced in the nativity of Christ, not with human feelings, as men are wont to rejoice when a son is born, but at the presence of Christ and the luster of the Divine light. As it follows: And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for every thing they had heard, &c.

THEOPHYL That is to say, from the Angels, and had seen, i.e. in Bethlehem, as it was told them, i.e. they glory in this, that when they came they found it even as it was told them, or as it was told them they give praise and glory to God. For this they were told by the Angels to do, not in very word commanding them, but setting before them the form of devotion when they sung glory to God in the highest.

THEOPHYL To speak in a mystery, let the shepherds of spiritual flocks, (nay, all the faithful,) after the example of, these shepherds, go in thought even to Bethlehem, and celebrate the incarnation of Christ with due honors. Let us go indeed casting aside all fleshly lusts, with the whole desire of the mind even to the heavenly Bethlehem, (i.e. the house of the living bread,) that He whom they saw crying in the manger we may deserve to see reigning on the throne of His Father. And such bliss as this is not to be sought for with sloth and idleness, but with eagerness must we follow the footsteps of Christ. When they saw Him they knew Him; and let us haste to embrace in the fullness of our love those things which were spoken of our Savior, that when the time shall come that we shall see with perfect knowledge we may be able to comprehend them.

THEOPHYL Again, the shepherds of the Lord”s flock by contemplating the life of the fathers who went before them, (which preserved the bread of life,) enter as it were the gates of Bethlehem, and find therein none other than the virgin beauty of the Church, that is, Mary; the manly company of spiritual doctors, that is, Joseph; and the lowly coming of Christ contained in the pages of Holy Scripture, that is, the infant child Christ, laid in the manger.

ORIGEN That was the manger which Israel knew not, according to those words of Isaiah, The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master”s crib.

THEOPHYL The shepherds did not hide in silence what they knew, because to this end have the Shepherds of the Church been ordained, that what they have learned in the Scriptures they might explain to their hearers.

THEOPHYL The masters of the spiritual flocks also, while others sleep, at one time by contemplation enter into the heavenly places, at another time pass around them by seeking the examples of the faithful, at another time by teaching return to the public duties of the pastoral office.

THEOPHYL Every one of us, even he who is supposed to live as a private person, exercises the office of shepherd, if, keeping together a multitude of good actions and pure thoughts, he strive to rule them with due moderation, to feed them with the food of the Scriptures, and to preserve them against the snares of the devil.



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