In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keep- ing watch over their flock by night. then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. this will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child.
My mother’s sense of humour was noteworthy and renowned. She named me after Israel’s most famous shepherd, but there the resemblance ends. I am not a king, and never will be.
But this night something remarkable has happened. And I feel like a king.
It began the way all our nights begin. With liquor and laughter and bawdy jokes; and when Sarah from the inn walked home along the lane at the bottom of the field I ran down the hill, whooping and screaming, and lifted her skirts and gripped her buttocks. She feigned disgust and pushed me away, but her red face and the little teasing look in her eye said something else, and I thought to myself, I will go to her in the morning and hold her again and weigh the ample pleasure of her flesh. I returned to the sheep, dreaming of that visitation. And the other shepherds, for there was a little gang of us on nights like this, grinned and gestured rather too graphically what they would like to do with her. And we laughed again. And told stories of past conquests. We exaggerated and boasted like stupid men do on lonely nights. We passed the bottle from hand to hand. It offered a brief relief from boredom and cold. I took a deep swig of its harsh, amber liquid, a fiery brew of fermented corn. the dark would soon be upon us. We were full of bravado.
Then the waiting began. the jokes gave way to conversation and the conversation gave way to silence. And in the real dead hours of the night even the silence seems deeper and emptier than at other times.
I remember the first time I ever killed a lamb. It was Passover time, and my father showed me what to do, how to be deliberate and swift. Holding the little thing by its hind legs I cut its throat and heard the gasps of its last breath and saw how my father held open the jaws of the wound so that the blood would flow out easily. I felt horror and triumph. I felt like a man, but I also felt like a knave. the little lamb looked at me as its life closed. Something inside me was saying: why all this killing, why all this blood, what does it mean? What difference does it make? Can it be more than food?
In the deep silence of the night it feels like the lifeblood of the world has drained away.
But I am being melodramatic. there are noises. Sometimes a frightened lamb will bleat, and one of us will roam around the perimeter of the field and check our makeshift fences and look out for foxes and bears. And we shout to each other, just grunts of acknowledgement, that all is well and no assistance is required. Or else it will just be someone snoring as their body caves in to sleep, and someone else prodding them awake. Or sometimes the haunting hoot of an owl.
I didn’t know what time it was. No sun to help me. I looked at the stars. No help there either. The more you looked, the more there seemed to be. I knew they were the very floor of heaven, but it seemed like they went back for ever. Some men could read the stars and be directed by them, finding their way from place to place, maybe even telling the hours of the night. not me. I had to look to the earth. Such is the lot of a poor man. You have to make a wage, and there is little time for dream- ing or scheming or looking at the stars. Sheep are very stupid things. they require constant attention. they wander hither and thither. they follow whoever offers a lead and submit to everyone. the fragrance of wild parsley or a sprig of thyme will lead them over a cliff. they need taking care of; when one is lost someone needs to seek it out.
Then it happened. out of nowhere and with such a sudden rush of dazzling brightness, it was as if a thousand bolts of lightning had exploded from the heavens at once and cut a swathe of light across the sky. It was like daytime, like noon- time only brighter, and with such brightness came a dreadful clarity, like a thousand piercing shafts of light that could see between bone and marrow, between body and spirit, between flesh and blood. At first it was frightening. I mean terrifying. I was flooded with light. It was consuming me. I felt almost lifted into it. then it was calm assurance: not a break with reality but the dawning of the first real day there had ever been. And a voice. I mean, I heard it as a voice, but it was not a voice like I’m speaking to you now; and nothing to see, like I can see you and you can see me, but not less real, more. And the voice spoke of glory and peace: glory to God in the highest heavens and peace to the earth. or was it singing? Was it the sweetest, loveliest music you have ever heard? Was it one voice or the thousand voices of a heavenly choir?
And we were still afraid. I looked at my comrades as the light rushed around us and the music filled the air. there was fear and wonder in their eyes. I suppose mine were the same. But there was also a sort of reflected glory on their faces. An inner light that almost matched the brightness of the sky.
Angels, they were. I realized it then. A host of angels in the sky. Heavenly messengers, God’s agents. telling us something. not just about God’s glory in heaven, but God’s peace on earth as well. And then a solemn declaration: ‘to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. this will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’
Well, you’ve never seen anything like it after that. the whole sky was ablaze with glory. We tumbled down the hill like mad things. the light went as swiftly as it had come, and every- thing was back to normal – only normal would never be the same again. We had seen the heavens open. We had seen with our eyes what the prophets had barely glimpsed. And we, simple men: uneducated, unread, ignorant of the law and all its suffocations. Love God and love your neighbour. that is all I knew. What hope of heaven for me! But now, with the heavens themselves opened to me; open to ordinary men.
We rushed into Bethlehem. We wanted to see what had happened. We had to find this child. So we abandoned our few sheep. We arrived at the outhouse behind the pub laughing and panting; then, aware of the noise we were making, hushed each other up and brushed each other down. We hung about outside the door like nervous lovers on a first date.
And we grinned at each other like we had never smiled before.
Then another silence. But this time not the silence of something empty, something incapable of noise or life. It was the silence of contentment, of arriving, of being held in the arms of one who knows and loves, and where words are no longer necessary. What a noise those angels had made. How come the whole town hadn’t heard it! But what a silence in that stable. the silence of loving and of being loved; of knowing and being known.
We went into the stable then. the door wasn’t barred. It was open to us – and, I suppose, to the whole waiting world.
We went in and knelt down. that’s all we did. Fools and idiots, who for no reason of personal merit or insight had just received the richest fortune. We knew this. And we didn’t need to say anything. We saw the child, and the child’s mother. We saw her husband. He stood between us and the child for a few moments, but as we were on our knees there was not much to be frightened of – we were hardly a threat, despite our rough appearance – so then he smiled and beckoned us forward. We shuffled across the floor on our knees. It must have been comical to watch. We must have looked a real sorry sight. But it felt right. this was not a place to stand; this felt a holy place – like when Moses saw that burning bush and took his shoes off. this was not a time to speak. Whatever it was that God wanted to say to us that night, he was saying it in the silence of a child born. All the noise and rejoicing of the angels was to lead us here, deep into the silence of God’s presence.
And there we stayed. For what seemed like ages. Kneeling and staring and smiling. then, because none of us can bear too much reality for too long, and love to tell a story and share a joke, we rose and shook each other’s hands and introduced ourselves. there was laughter and tears. I don’t know how to describe it. We all spoke at once, and our strange stories of angels in the sky directing us here seemed to confirm their strange story of an angel’s direction and the message that this child was from God. And though I don’t pretend to understand why God would visit us here, in this way, in this dismal place, I can’t deny that there was something magical in this night that words can’t contain. Even as I tell you what the angels sang and how the sky was filled with light, it seems in part like someone else’s life, or a story made up to emphasize that what happened was fantastic. All I know, and what I am left with, is the child: his silence and his presence and the adoration of his mother and the tenderness of love given and received.
Many words were spoken that night. When we left the stable as the new day dawned we were rejoicing – more drunk than any liquor had ever made us. We talked about it to everyone we saw. We shouted it out. We said a king was born, a Messiah. And they laughed and winked and patted us on the back and got on with their lives like nothing had changed. Even the crabby old woman who runs the inn opened her door a fraction to glare at us. ‘Peace on earth,’ we said to her, laughing. ‘A new king born, here in Bethlehem.’
Who listens to a shepherd if he is not King David? Who listens to a child when a child cannot even speak, but only sleep and cry? And if this child is king, how will anyone know? Will he be like David and lead an army to victory, and kick out the Romans, and establish an empire? I can’t see it. not in this manger where he lies at the moment. this is a different sort of king.
But what do I know? A shepherd, an outcast: a dreamer of smutty dreams and cheap thoughts, a lover of wine and generous women? How can I know the mysteries of God? or what God is saying through this child? But I do know this, and I will hold on to it, even if no one believes me, and even if I have to keep it to myself for ever: a word was spoken tonight, but as the night turned into day I realized that it was not the words of the angels, nor our excited words of greet- ing, nor even the astonishing obedience of a mother who endured all the misunderstandings and the hardships that had brought her to give birth in a barn. It was the word of God: God’s word spoken in the life of a child.
• Which person in the story did you most relate to?
• What surprised, shocked or delighted you the most?
• How has this changed your understanding of the Christmas story?