On Shepherds and Angels in the Dark

“That night in the fields near Bethlehem some shepherds were guarding their sheep. All at once an angel came down to them from the Lord, and the brightness of the Lord’s glory flashed around them.” (Luke 2:8, CEV) 

On a recent Advent retreat we were meditating on how we have received surprising, good news in our lives. We shared stories of generous friends who showed up unexpectedly, strangers who opened their hearts in just the way we needed, and the miraculous joy and peace of it all. 

But I got stuck with the shepherds. As a child, I was always afraid of the dark, running anxiously from my friend’s well-lit house to my home next door, desperate to evade unseeable horrors. But the shepherds must have been comfortable out there in the dark with their sheep. They lived in a world without motion-activated spotlights, endless lines of streetlights, and the now ubiquitous cellphone glow. Their eyes must have been accustomed to reading the dim landscape which was their home. 

And then an angel appears with bright light and good news and their first reaction, Luke tells us, was to be afraid. “The shepherds were frightened.” (Luke3:9b, CEV) 

I thought about how hard it can be to move out of my place of comfort even for the promise of something better. I am reluctant to trade the broken-down recliner for one with unstained, intact upholstery because, even though its mechanism is failing, this chair bears my body’s imprint. I know how to sit to not collapse it; I know what to expect. I don’t have to be careful with it. I would be intimidated by fine leather and seamless electronics. 

You can see where this is going, can’t you? It’s hard for me to break out of old ways of being — ingrained self-deprecation, decades-long grudges, and trying to finesse the truth to protect another person’s feelings (and my own) – even as the promise of freedom beckons. 

Psychologists might refer to these as maladaptive behaviors, Thomas Keating called them my programs for happiness. They developed to protect me from real or perceived threats in childhood. And they must have worked because here I am. 

But I’m not a child anymore and these coping skills no longer fit. Still here I sit, stuck in my tattered habits, afraid of being vulnerable enough to move forward. What happens next? 

But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid! I have good news for you, which will make everyone happy. This very day in King David’s hometown a Savior was born for you. He is Christ the Lord. You will know who he is, because you will find him dressed in baby clothes and lying on a bed of hay.” Suddenly many other angels came down from heaven and joined in praising God. (Luke 3: 10-12, CEV) 

God, it seems, doubles down in the face of my resistance. God accepts and names my fear then speaks in language I can understand. A newborn on a bed of hay! now that’s something a shepherd can relate to. How many similar invitations does God extend to me every day? 

I have experienced this in my work as a rape crisis advocate and now as a spiritual director. It’s as if God says to me: Having trouble being vulnerable? Come, be a companion to people in their time of profound need. Wrestling with family issues? Spend time walking with people whose families are wired together with fear, anger, or the need to control. God grows in me a desire to move outward to the other and inward to myself knowing that I will find salvation there, even if it looks small and vulnerable and human and divine. 

After the angels had left and gone back to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see what the Lord has told us about.” They hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and they saw the baby lying on a bed of hay. (Luke 2:15-16, CEV)

Liz Deal, Associate Spiritual Director


As a spiritual director, Liz combines Formative Spirituality as developed by Fr. Adrian van Kaam with Ignatian spirituality to help people recognize how God is present in every aspect of their lives. Prior to moving to West Virginia in 2010, Liz spent fourteen years as the Coordinator of Adult Formation and Liturgy for a large Catholic parish in suburban Philadelphia, PA. She is comfortable working with men and women of various faith traditions. She offers individual and group spiritual direction (in person and via Zoom or FaceTime), Ignatian silent directed retreats, and the 19th Annotation Spiritual Exercises in Everyday Life.

Liz is a member of the WVIS faculty. She is a certified supervisor for individuals offering individual spiritual direction, group spiritual direction programs, and the 19th Annotation in Daily Life.