Lisa Nichols Hickman: Women shepherds?

The inclusion of women shepherds in the St. John’s Bible and in Greg Mortenson’s schools is an incarnational insight.

“One day you are going to make a great pasture.” 

Would you consider that note to me from a seventh-grade youth group member a compliment?  I’ve thought a lot about what goes on in that pasture during my years in the pastorate: sheep, shepherds and well, other stuff. 

This Christmas season I am contemplating the shepherds out in the field.  I have the wonderful images from the “St. John’s Bible” to thank for this heartened prayer. While viewing pages from the manuscript at a Benedictine Monastery in Erie, my mother-in-law directed my attention to the opening illustration for the Gospel of Luke. The image is a stable scene: donkey, sheep, ox, Mary, the manger. Piercing this humble scene is a broad band of gold light, representing the presence of God. Here, that presence is vividly presented: golden angels fluttering above, golden calligraphy calling forth the text, the gold band of light descending from above to the lowliest of the low and a swath of golden shepherds.

But wait, golden shepherds? Why isn’t Mary, the very mother of God, swathed in a golden post-partum glow?

The golden shepherds draw the viewer into the scene so we pay close attention. Here they’ve arrived from the pasture at the heralding call of the angels. As the viewer looks closer, there is a second surprising element.

They are all young women. One even carries a young baby girl.

When my mother-in-law pointed out this detail all of a sudden I felt . . . embraced. I had never realized before that I had not felt included at the manger scene. In every Christmas pageant I’ve ever seen, the young girls are angels. The young boys are shepherds. While I preferred wings to bathrobes, there was a certain set of expectations that come with characterizing an angel. A whole set of attributes were laid to angelic rest: pristine, perfect, quietly hovering all in white. With my stole draped over my shoulders like a lamb, the stole now holds a whole new set of attributes: strong, resilient, perseverant, dedicated, resolved. I am a shepherd girl as well.

At another nearby Benedictine community, the sisters host a Christmas time display of nativities from many nations. This time I had a specific purpose as I perused the scenes. Were there any shepherd girls? Among the one hundred plus nativities, two included shepherds that were clearly young girls (Sometimes even the male shepherds wore draping frocks!). Thankfully, the growing number of women in ministry is far beyond the dismal statistic of two among one hundred. As a female pastor, set out to pasture as shepherd of the sheep in my fold, I have a responsibility to nurture the young girls in our church who are growing in faith. Seeing young women not as angels-to-be, but as shepherds with strengths, changes everything.

You see, belief in a shepherd girl can change the world. Greg Mortenson, a candidate for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, has proven that as he has worked diligently to provide schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan for young women. Educating a young girl beyond the pasture and into a profession can shape a nation. Looking at the nativity scene anew, now I see shepherd girls from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and Peru. Jesus is within their reach. He will change their world.

For this year ahead, as Christmas and Epiphany unfold into Lent and Easter and then that onslaught of ordinary time, I have a photo on my desk to guide me. It’s of a young shepherd girl from China, aglow with bright cheeks and a turquoise wool sweater, cradling a young lamb in her hands.

Jesus laid down his life: he became pasture, for ones such as this to find new life.  Maybe the young man’s parting words to me were the greatest of compliments. 

Lisa Nichols Hickman is pastor of New Wilmington Presbyterian Church in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania.