Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Luke 2:8
The Shepherds. They don’t get much attention, but they were arguably Jesus’ first disciples. After visiting Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, they were the first humans to proclaim the arrival of Messiah.
That had to be one mind-blowing night! First, there was one angel appearing out of nowhere telling them God’s Promise had arrived. Then there were more angels than one could count pinwheeling around the sky and making music no human ear had ever heard.
What might it have been like? I took a swing at it in my Christian fiction novel, The Substance Hoped For.
And there were, in a nearby field, shepherds, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, they were beat to hell. It had been one long day, and if there had been a list of things that could really ruin a shepherd’s day, they’d have checked off the last item by mid-afternoon. They were tired. They were hungry. All they wanted to do was sleep. In fact, they went to the extra precaution of having two stand watch instead of one just so they could keep each other awake. If there had been no sign of predators during the day, they might have considered foregoing a night watch. Predators had, in fact, been an unusually large problem for days, which was why they were so exhausted and would continue to lose sleep.
The two unlucky winners of tonight’s lottery for first watch huddled against the cold of the night. The flocks were finally settling down, and the night wrapped itself around them. The stars dropped their dust of light across the landscape and transformed it into a land of slumber. The star dust confounded the eyes into seeing images that were soft and of dimensions not real. The insects and other creatures of this kingdom issued their complaint to no one in particular, as they and the very fabric of this starry world seduced the weary faculties of man.
The watchers found themselves watching each other more than anything else. They began a game of tossing small clods of dirt at each other if one suspected the other of nodding off. It became a rivalry of trying to find more and more furtive ways of disguising their tosses while increasing their accuracy.
Their attention thus diverted, the shock of finally noticing a stranger in their midst was profound. Like children caught throwing spitballs, they scrambled to their feet, grabbing their shepherd’s weapons and shouting an alarm to their fellows.
The stranger made no move to either flee or defend himself. He simply stood there, waiting. Being of noticeable size, he wasn’t someone that the shepherds were willing to come to blows with, particularly since he didn’t seem to represent any overt threat to them…not counting sheer shock value, of course. His face seemed friendly enough. Indeed, when he seemed sure that he had their undivided attention a smile of great warmth and happiness lit his face.
He flung his arms upward, and under them seemed to unfold wings. A bright light enveloped their whole camp as he rose into the air. He began speaking to them in a voice which commanded the night. It rung in their ears and penetrated their minds as though his words were their own thoughts.
“Do not fear. Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall come to all people; for to you is born this night in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord. And this will be a sign to you; you will find the Baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
His words stunned his listeners. The shepherds were awestruck, because they were witnessing a heavenly messenger who was telling them that a promise ragged with time was being sewn up and delivered in their presence.
They knew the history of their race and were familiar with the promise of the Messiah. Now angels from God had danced with them and told them where they could see the mythical Messiah now come to them in the flesh.
It didn’t take much discussion to decide that the sheep would somehow be in God’s keeping. If He had told them to go see the Chosen One, surely, He would not let any harm come to them or their livelihood. With utter abandon they ran, tripped, rolled, bounced, and otherwise descended the hillside, heading for the faint fires that marked Bethlehem.
The overflow of humanity from the census huddled in doorways and against walls on the streets of Bethlehem. All were still, if not asleep, as they sealed themselves as best they could against the chill of the night. As the shepherds whirled through the streets and alleys like leaves blown in the eddies of an autumn wind, eyes peered over blanket edges. Some heads raised slightly at the sound of what seemed to be drunken shouts about the Messiah, but they quickly pulled back into their cocoons to conserve the thin layer of warmth between their skin and their covers. No one thought to take these somewhat crazed hillsmen as anything more than another peculiarity that came with this ridiculous, irritating census. If only all interruptions and irritations would move along so quickly!
They were almost to the far side of town when one of them delivered a piercing whistle that stopped the rest in their tracks. They all looked toward him in expectation. He put a finger to his lips for quiet and motioned them to come near.
When they were all gathered at the entrance to this particular stable, they peered inside as though frightened to enter. Someone seemed to speak to them from inside. One by one they then gingerly entered the stable, almost as peasants would enter a castle.
Inside was a man standing next to a girl who was seated. She was holding a small bundle, which had to be a child. The shepherds were gathered respectfully around them. Some of them were telling the man about what had happened to them on the hillside outside of town. He listened with a detached expression. The girl listened calmly, smiling at them as their story unfolded. The other shepherds were gingerly peering into the bundle she cradled. One or two were brave enough to stretch a finger into the swaddling clothes to render a gentle caress.
The girl seemed amused that such rough men were behaving so meekly. Suddenly, she decided to let them hold her Child. She offered Him to the nearest man, who tried to retreat from this fearsome honor. That a man can fight wolves and bears and make his way in the wilderness alone and yet be cowed by a mewling infant has been a known fact through the ages, much to the delight of mothers around the world. Enjoying the only entertainment she’d had since before leaving home to come to Bethlehem for the census, she prevailed upon him to hold her Son. Thankful that they hadn’t been singled out by the mother, his alleged friends provided no escape. The mountain man accepted the Child into his arms with a look of intense concentration, lest he break something. Gradually he got the hang of it and began to smile a bit as the others reached in to touch this little Miracle.
Having been cornered himself, he decided it was now time for someone else to pass through the fire of holding a baby, but none of his compatriots would take Him. Inside, he was just as glad. This was really more fun than he had thought it would be. And this made him out to be the bravest in the group. He’d have bragging rights for days, berating his mates for their cowardice…something they hadn’t thought of when they cornered him into this.