When we moved to the country we knew we wanted to get more animals. We went back and forth about which kinds of animals but we eventually ended up with sheep. Why sheep? I am often asked, and I sometimes struggle to answer. Of course, sheep have many uses: wool, meat, milk, and lawn mowing— and we may use our sheep for any combination of those things. But that’s not why we got them.
We got them because of providence. One Sunday afternoon, we saw a flock grazing on the side of the road. My husband pulled off and spoke with the shepherd. And I rode home with a lamb on my lap.
This was not planned and we were not really prepared. But we should have been prepared. I have wanted sheep all my life.
But I wanted sheep for (what I thought were) “silly” reasons. Like the fact that my favorite picture of Jesus was one that hung outside the adoration chapel at the Cathedral of Christ the King. It was a simple pen and ink drawing of a little lamb nuzzling against Jesus’s face. You can barely see Jesus’s face at all. But you can see the lamb’s very well. He looks perfectly happy.
I wanted sheep because sheep were the first to hear the good news of Jesus’s birth. I wanted sheep because they probably licked the toes of the little baby in the manger (I now know from experience that they like to lick the toes of babies in strollers). I wanted sheep because they are the number one mentioned animal in the Bible. I wanted sheep because David tended them and so did the children of Fatima. I wanted sheep because we are apparently like them, although we often forget it, and maybe it would help to be reminded by the real thing.
We got our second lamb when she was just a day old (she was not getting milk from her mother) and so we had to bottle feed her for the first few weeks. Sometimes it was a little eerie walking through the dark to her pen late at night. But I always felt at peace once inside. It wasn’t like the sheep offered me any protection; they certainly didn’t. But they trusted me so much that it helped me to trust God. They knew they were helpless and totally up to my care. Why couldn’t I be the same way?
I remember one of the first theological concepts I learned was that of “substance” and “accident.” The common example of this concept is the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, the substance is the Body and Blood of Christ. Bread and wine are only the accidents. They are what we see and touch and taste but they are not the essence. Moreover, they are not necessary. God could have chosen other means by which to give us His body. We might as well conclude that the accidents really don’t matter all that much.
But lately I have learned a new theological concept. Namely, that accidents actually do matter. Certainly, God could have chosen carrots and water to make the Eucharist but He didn’t choose carrots and water. He chose bread and wine and He chose them for a reason. They actually are not “accidental” in the modern way we think of the word. They were not coincidence. They were not random. In fact, there’s all sorts of deep symbolism and history involving bread and wine throughout salvation history. The “accidents” of the Eucharist do not matter as much as the “substance”… but the “accidents” still matter very much.
How does this relate to sheep? Well, sheep are not accidental either. Because a T-rex does not make for very good parables. Neither does an octopus. And neither does a cockroach. God chose sheep. God chose shepherds. God also chose a dove. And a rainbow. And He was born in a real city called Bethlehem. And that city is hallowed and blessed because of it. More so than any other city in the world.
It is easy for modern Christians to dismiss this fact. We tend to under-literalize things. Sure, Bethlehem was special— but it could have been anywhere! And is it really so special anymore? God is everywhere, isn’t He?
I have never been to Bethlehem. But I do know that everyone I know who has been can attest to the fact that Bethlehem is still very special. And blessed.
In the same way, I think our sheep are blessed! And that’s why we have them.
So if you’re ever thinking about getting animals, consider sheep. Yes, they could make you some meat or wool or money. They’ll likely cut your grass very nicely and create great compost for your garden. Most importantly though, they might remind you of your own mortality, your own need for God, and His everlasting love.