The hierarchy of the world has been turned upside down. The ox and ass look knowingly down on the humans below them, who in turn look down on God incarnate. As the angel brings the good news to all people, the entire world is created anew, from top to bottom in the order of its first creation. First, a new day dawns, separating light and dark. Next, heaven and earth, land and water, are set apart. Then, animals and humans are given new abundant life. And in this new creation, in the humblest position of all, beneath even the shepherd’s dog, lies the Saviour.
Christ’s place in time, his part in the long scheme of salvation, is made clear. The baby’s pose is clearly designed to recall Moses floating in his basket (Exodus 2:3). Jesus is to be the second Moses, saving his people and bringing the new law. But he is more. The shepherds have come to the city of David and they greet their saviour as the second David.
This new David is to be a shepherd for more than the Jews—his sheep will be not only of this fold. So the figure carrying a lamb on his shoulders echoes a well known Gentile image, the Graeco-Roman sculpture of the god Mercury as the Good Shepherd. This baby will be the good shepherd of John 10, who calls all his sheep, Gentiles and Jews, by their name—and who will lay down his life for them.
We see how that life will be given. On the right stands the broken column of Christ’s future scourging: it is emblematic of the Roman Empire, whose Emperor’s decree caused Christ to be born in Bethlehem, and under whose law he will die. In defiance of Luke’s text, the baby is shown not swaddled, but naked, exposed, and vulnerable. At his feet the rough-hewn branches of his crib foretell three crosses.
8 And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; 11 for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 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 among men with whom he is pleased!”
15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it they made known the saying which had been told them concerning this child; 18 and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.