So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” Luke 2:15
My goal in writing my novel, The Substance Hoped For was to use my actor’s imagination to flesh out details about Christmas not contained in the Bible. The Bible tells us what happened, but it doesn’t always give the sense of what it was like, the finer details of people’s lives.
Toward that end, I offer you my interpretation of The Shepherds from my novel, The Substance Hoped For.
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 that left Tom wondering whether he believed them or not. 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.
The girl smiled. She seemed barely more than a child herself. Except when she smiled. It was a wise smile that had seen much in a short time and therefore knew how to smile well.
Here it was; a tableau from every mantelpiece, every store display in the world. It was so foreign, breaking every mold that had ever tried to capture and sell this moment. It was so right, holding the joy and the innocence that a child can bring to people. It was so…Christmas.
Through the accidents of history come the customs of holidays. Some parallels between 20th Century observances and original events are based upon centuries of repeated lore. Others are the result of mere happenstance, not thought of by modern day revelers.
One element of Christmas which the original event shares with all of its subsequent remembrances and no one ever knew about; having company that is welcome but keeps you up past your bedtime. The shepherds were a surprise at the stable. Their infectious joy was a boon to the lonely family. Mary and Joseph had no one there to celebrate the birth of their Son with them.
Oh, they were more than happy about the birth of Jesus. But there was a sense of disappointment all the same. There was the exultation of the moment but no roar of the crowd. Then these wild hill men came to rejoice with them at this most opportune moment. They were all as a family for this night.
Many of the things the shepherds had to tell Mary and Joseph caused the new parents a certain amount of discomfort. Just when life was starting to look normal again, these guys came along to remind them that this special Baby is God’s Messiah. Ultimately, that contained comfort. It confirmed their dreams, which had made them doubt their sanity at times.
So, in keeping with the Christmas tradition of centuries to come, the shepherds stayed late, keeping the Holy Family from their sleep. Oh, well. Joseph and Mary had taken a nap earlier. And how often do they ever entertain, really? They didn’t know a lot of people in town and might as well take advantage of this impromptu Welcome Wagon. They’d just sleep in a bit tomorrow. It’s not like they did this every night.
Eventually the shepherds left. It had been fun, but in the end Mary and Joseph were glad to see them go. They could now act out the final stage of this particular holiday tradition. The vacuum of the departure of one’s guests leaves the hosts tired and without direction for a while. Fortunately, the mundane tasks of living press upon us at these times. We clear the dishes, put back the chairs, put the cow back in her stall, and fluff up the straw bed. Mary and Joseph moved about in that post-company daze that we all know so well.
The only member of the family who seemed unaffected was Jesus. Oddly enough, He was pretty calm despite all of the excitement of being born and handed around by strange people, late company, and all the rest. Usually kids get cranky with all of the disruption of a holiday, but this was one Kid who managed to take it all in stride. His parents couldn’t have been more proud of Him.