A Christmas Story: Once upon a hillside …

It was over thirty years ago but I still remember that night so well. I was ten years old and proud of it. I tried very hard to hold my own with the others who did not always take kindly to my age or relative innocence. As long as I did my job then they were friendly enough but there were often times when they would be rough and make me cry. Eventually one of the group would make them stop and I would feel ashamed that I hadn’t been able to hold out longer.

Then there were the practical jokes at my expense which sometimes made me very afraid but caused them great hilarity and again I would feel annoyed that I had once more fallen for their clever scheme.

Usually, when I was feeling upset, lonely, or annoyed I would go off on my own and sit with my favourite lamb and tell it all my woes. I was happy to think that it always understood and sympathised with me, being the younger victim. Feeling its warm heartbeat under the cold, clear, starlit sky was the next best thing to my mother’s hug. I felt safe and loved. Here, I could fall asleep and dream of being a man – and planning my own practical jokes.

It was on one such night that it happened. Suddenly, there was shouting and screaming coming from the other shepherds and a bright light shining amongst the rocks and trees.

“Not again”, I thought, “what are they cooking up this time?”

But there was something different about this. Perhaps it was the way they were screaming or something about the light which was very unusual. I suddenly became afraid because I thought we were being attacked by those filthy, cruel Roman soldiers or even sheep robbers. This might be my last ever night on earth.

I got up and slowly made my way to where the rest had been sleeping. They weren’t sleeping any more. Instead, they were all on their knees or lying face down on the ground. Most were shaking and some were crying for mercy. I must admit, I did find this funny and was a bit glad that they were getting a taste of their own medicine. But what was it that was causing them to fear like this?

The light seemed to be coming from just above the hill but it was so bright that I couldn’t look directly at it. It was as if a small sun was shining but without any of the heat. I had never seen anything like this before. Then, just as incredible, a voice started to speak. I say a voice but it was like nothing I had heard before. It wasn’t just the sound, which seemed like a mixture of all the voices I had ever heard, but it was the way the ground trembled as the words came out. A bit like an earthquake …

“Do not be afraid”, it said.

This didn’t help – as nothing so far made any of us feel anything less than very afraid.

Then, the source of the voice moved forward out of the light. A shimmering being in pure white but tinged with gold, just like my lamb’s wool shines in the sunrise. The only way I can explain it is that the light seemed to ripple out just like water does when you throw a pebble in a pool. And the light itself seemed to split into colours but you couldn’t name them and as soon as you focused on one it would change. What trickery was this? Something way beyond our practical jokers, the Romans and even sheep stealers!

“I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people”.

Well, ‘Good news’ … that was interesting. We hadn’t heard any good news for ages, and none that would bring great joy to everyone! This wasn’t a Roman thing.

Some of the shepherds began to lift their heads and get off their knees and sit down together in a huddle till only Reuben stayed face down, sobbing and shaking.

The voice went on,

“Today, in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

This was a lot to take in but before I could really understand what was being said the whole sky lit up with a thousand bright lights. It was as if the stars had fallen from the sky and gathered all around us … much bigger and brighter than when they were high up above. And then there was some kind of music … but nothing like we make ourselves with flutes and harps. This was something else. Instead of just hearing it all my senses seemed to be affected. It was like the warm summer breeze, the song of birds and bleat of lambs, the lapping of water on the lake shore, the smell of Spring and Summer. It made me think of the most beautiful sunset and the soft rain that blesses the parched ground. It must have been the song of Creation which, for some reason we were able to hear … then all these stars said and sang together:

“Glory to God
in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace
to those on whom
his favour rests”

We were hearing the name of God in a field, on a mountain; not in a cold, stone temple and not by priests. None of us had much time for religion – raw nature was enough for us. But here, nature itself seemed to be responding to the heavenly spectacle. I had a sense deep inside that this was true worship. These angels, for that is what they must have been, were, for some reason, telling us of a great event to do with a baby. The Messiah was mentioned although being in a Manger still didn’t make much sense … but they obviously wanted us to be part of what was going on.

Just as suddenly as they appeared, they were gone.

Once our eyes got accustomed to the dark again we started talking about what had happened. Most agreed that we should go down to Bethlehem and see for ourselves. All except Reuben who was still lying face down, still shaking – but, once he realised he’d be left behind alone he soon got up and followed us.

What can I say about that visit to the back of the Inn?

We made our way through the crowded, noisy streets. So many people none of whom seemed to have been aware of what we had just seen. They were carrying on as normal, (for census time), trying to make the best of it either by getting drunk or finding long-lost friends to moan and complain with – and yes, then get drunk.

Finally, we’re weren’t sure how, we found them in a relatively quiet part of town. Sure enough, there was a baby.  There was a man and a young woman who were obviously the parents. The man looking nervous and the mother looking lovingly at her baby … in the manger! We had arrived, unannounced, unprepared and certainly unkempt at a most intimate and innocent scene. We didn’t know it then but Herod’s soldiers would soon be searching for this baby and many others would be slaughtered on his orders. But this baby, this little lamb, would survive that night … and I was glad that I had been given the chance to be there because, for once, us shepherds were trusted with something the rest of the world didn’t know. Was it because we were used to caring for vulnerable sheep? Was it because we knew the importance of a good, safe birth and the nurturing of new life? Was it because we didn’t know how to argue away what we’d seen and so just believed and followed – like our sheep? Or was it because we’d seen the angels – and had heard for ourselves the music of heaven?

Reuben was the last to come in but he quickly made his way to the front and when he saw the baby in the manger fell flat on his face again! But this time there were sounds of joy coming from him and then he started laughing. So embarrassing! But the mother turned to him and smiled and I swear that even the baby started chuckling … there was this joy which touched us all. Reuben got up and led us out into the cold night air still with an open smile on his face and he stopped everyone he met and told them about what had just happened and what we’d seen and heard. He was very keen to tell them that he had seen the Messiah and that God’s Kingdom was coming. Some would ask us if he was crazy but we happily confirmed that we had seen and heard these things too.

Back on the hillside it took us a while to settle down. The stars would never look the same again and I felt that there was nothing that could frighten me anymore. I had seen the baby Messiah. I didn’t fully understand what that meant but it could only be good; very, very good. I found my lamb and lay down, watching the stars and wondering if there would be any other surprises. But that seemed to be it.

Then, about three years ago a Rabbi called Jesus of Nazareth appeared and went around talking about the Kingdom of God. There were claims that he healed people and had even raised a few from the dead. Some called him a heretic, a zealot or mad. But a few seemed to think he was the Messiah come to save us from Roman rule … was this the baby in the manger all grown up?

And now, here I am in Jerusalem. I’ve brought my best lamb to offer as sacrifice for my family to share in the Passover. There’s a rumour going around that this Jesus, of Nazareth, is to be crucified for upsetting the High Priest and threatening Rome itself.

It’s all very strange … did I first see him in a manger? Now he’s going to hang on a cross! What sort of Messiah does any of that? But then, how many of us have angels announcing our birth? If he’s wrong then the crucifixion won’t change anything … but, if he really is the promised One …

I think I’ll stay for a little while longer and see if any angels turn up …

4th Sunday in Advent: Joseph and Mary

Within the Advent journey two people faced a common challenge
but from completely different perspectives …


divine intervention,
assured you of the right
to remain faithful
and be a father to the child
who could not be yours.

(Today, it would not be an issue).

But then!

It crossed your mind, of course,
to put her away –
as much for her sake as for yours.
The final act of love that you could make
to honour and protect her.

What tangled thoughts
must have engaged
your emotions and understanding?

Why me?
Why her?
Why now?

Questions every human asks
sometimes with force;
sometimes rhetorically
with just the loose comfort
of having asked them …

on this occasion,
such was the enormity
of the plan you were part of,
the answer did come.

And so,
with that deepening assurance,
without any thought
to grasp at greatness,
riches or posterity,
you became the chosen man
to be the earthly father
of the Son of God! 



Like a precious pearl
you grew in innocence;
quietly minding your own thoughts,
obedient to counsel
and familiar with the Word.

You were prepared
for that common destiny,
betrothed by custom,
to a man …
chosen by your family

such tradition
could not prepare you
for your true calling;
beyond comprehension,
beyond custom,
beyond man …

Your open purity,
your obedient heart,
your submissive will;
these became the foundation
on which the Divine Choice
was made
and the Eternal Promise

Innocence is always
vulnerable to attack
by that dark perversion
which devastates
our broken world.
Neither does it escape
the taunts of
unfaithfulness and
hypocrisy …

But you,
by nothing less
than the Holiness of God,
received Heaven’s Incarnate Light.

From the obscurity of the womb
the Light of the World
would spring
as the Innocent Man,
rebirth our innocence
through grace and truth.

3rd Sunday in Advent: Angels abounding …


From the spectral hues of heaven
you transcend the boundary
between creation and Creator.

Shimmering like the rainbow,
you appear in our shaded sphere;
shaking our sense of safe, familiar
but broken beauty.

Your unearthly presence spans
time and eternity,
finite and infinite,
beginning and end.

With you there is
no prejudice,
no judgement,
no bias,
no spin.

Your mission:
to speak with words
of Divine truth
into the chaos
of our humanity …

To Daniel,
you foretold
the Anointed One’s sacrifice.

To Zechariah
you conveyed good news
promising new life;
leaving him
in the silence
of his disbelief.

And so, to Mary!

Surely, Gabriel,
this was a conversation
like no other.

Between those singular lines
of humble acceptance
you studied and interpreted
her silence
and understood her heart;
a new Eve, obedient and true.

Familiar as you are
with the glory and nature
of heaven,
you would wonder at this:

the kindling of Salvation
and the birth of Grace!

to the realms of mystery
you bore the answer
to Eden’s question,
“Where are you?”

And so,
Heaven overflows
in ecstatic praise:

“God Incarnate: Love’s great plan!
Joy to the world and Peace to Man!”

2nd Sunday in Advent: Snow stops pray …

“Sorry, Lord!”

I could not meet with you today
some of your snow got in the way.

Did you arrive? I’m sure it’s true
for that is what you always do.

I suppose it’s comforting to know
that you are there before I go.

Some people say there is no need
to go to church to mean the creed.

But where else can we meet with you?
unless you’ve moved to somewhere new!

It is ‘God’s House’ for goodness’ sake
from which you never take a break.

I hope the snow will clear soon
and we can all get back in tune.

To sing your carols with great joy
and celebrate the baby boy.

To hear his story, make a fuss
of Immanuel … “God with us … “

Oh, hang on a minute … so, that means …

That every place where I can be
you’re always there – waiting for me!

1st Sunday in Advent:”What kind of greatness can this be?”



We don’t seem to do mystery any more.

Apart from the odd Agatha Christie or Midsummer Murder story and their ilk which still taunt us, even when we know whodunnit.

No, I mean, we don’t appreciate true mystery. We live at a time when we can know so much at the slide of a finger across our ubiquitous touch sensitive screens. Instantaneous gratification of the mind and heart. In our high-tec, IT, world we don’t easily accept that there are limits we cannot cross …

The commercial countdown to Christmas presents us with all sorts of goodies to be consumed, in one way or other, and on-line wish-lists ensure that we are not disappointed too much on the day.

It might seem that even the Christian season of Advent is old hat as once again we prepare for the celebration of our Saviour using the traditional songs and readings we love, more or less. Where is the mystery in that?

But, Advent is full of mystery!

It is the season of expectation; of waiting; the anticipation of an arrival. Behind and beyond the traditions, the formulae, the good old recipes, there is the mystery of meaning. Why, what, who, how?

Despite (or hopefully because of) our professed faith in the Nativity and the Second Coming there is so much we don’t know and so much that is beyond our knowledge. We can’t enter this season thinking that we know the end of the story because it’s still being written … in us!

We don’t control Christmas anymore than we can control the weather.

As familiar as Advent is it is far more than our celebration, our meditation and our participation. It is the reminder, at the start of the Christian year, that something bigger has invited us to share in perfect love, joy and peace and to understand the mystery of oneness beyond our human limitations and borders.

It invites us to tentatively or wholeheartedly worship God, through the Person of Jesus, and wonder at his mystery and greatness in becoming small for us …

Happy Advent!