Every year in our ward, on the Sunday before Christmas, our sacrament meeting is devoted to the primary children, who put on a live nativity presentation of song and scripture reading. They dress up as characters from the Christmas story and stand in a little alcove in the back of our cultural hall, strung with lights and burlap to create a little manger scene. Every year when the primary presidency gives out assignments for the characters in the nativity, it’s inevitably accompanied by tears, tantrums and phone calls from angry parents. So this year they decided to change the rules. They allowed every child to be whomever they wanted to be. So we ended up with 5 wise men, 4 Marys, a smattering of angels, and no Joseph, and no shepherds. In dismay the Primary President told the children “Boys and girls, we have a problem. We need someone to volunteer for the part of Joseph, and we need at least one shepherd.” Silence. “If no one volunteers, we are going to have to make an assignment.” More silence. Then finally, a boy raised his hand, and as he did so, his little brother next to him also raised his hand. One volunteered to be Joseph and the other a shepherd. My wife had observed earlier that morning just eager these boys were to be wisemen. They had excitedly approached the Primary President and made sure she wrote it down on her clipboard. Yet, in the end, they were the only ones who were willing to give up their prized status. These boys come from a very humble, but happy family. Their father is deaf (the whole family signs) and their youngest little brother has down syndrome.
In my wife’s primary class she tried to get as much mileage out of this situation as possible. “Why didn’t any of you want to be a shepherd?” she asked. “Who wants to be a shepherd and wear an old bathrobe and carry Br. Barker’s wooden cane when you can be a cool wiseman and wear a crown and colorful cape with jewels, right? In the same way that you all thought being a shepherd was not very cool, back in Jesus’s time the shepherds were also the humblest and poorest of the people. And yet it was to them that the angels came to announce the holy birth, and not to the wealthy kids in Bethlehem” she explained. Unfortunately this little object lesson didn’t go over well, eliciting jokes and snide remarks typical of 11 year olds.
But we were touched by the examples of these two little boys, who are obviously being taught well in their home, and who demonstrated one of the greatest Christlike qualities one can possess: humility. They showed us the goodness of their hearts by being willing to sacrifice something that was so important to them. To be a shepherd is the true essence of the gospel.