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 …