While Shepherds Watched
[[I haven’t written fiction in a long time. And while this story is not entirely original, it felt good to sit down and write something with a bit of imagination. This is a story from the margins, a time for us to get swept up in the grand drama of the first Christmas and hear from voices that are often mentioned in passing or remembered only in brief carols. This is the Advent tale, told by its first witnesses]]
On the cool rolling hills outside Bethlehem a single shepherd stood, his skinny frame silhouetted by the burning rays of a dying a sun. He shivered a bit, wrapping his cloak about himself as he surveyed the flock spread out on the plains below. Hundreds of sheep were grazing lazily or settling down for a chilly evening’s sleep, some emitting lazy calls of baaa to their fellows, others quiet and content. The little lambs, now about six months old, frolicked under the still watchful eyes of their mothers. The sheep cared little about the fact that the setting sun signaled the beginning of Shabbat, but it was all the young shepherd could think about.
He had never considered himself particularly religious. He was a Jew, of course, and had been educated in the reading of the scriptures. He could fully participate in the worship of the synagogue and the Temple, but it had been many years since he had done so. As a boy, he had been fascinated by the pageantry of Temple worship. The gold and silver and marble of Herod’s refurbished temple were glorious, more than enough to strike a young boy’s imagination. But poor decisions had forced him into the life of a shepherd, and sheep celebrate the Sabbath about as often as shepherds do. It had never occurred to the young man that he should take Shabbat off and let the sheep wander. Half the flock would have died. But in the spring, when he had been selling wool in Jerusalem to the wealthy merchants who would spin and dye it and turn a fine profit, a priest had sneered at him and castigated him for watching the sheep on the Sabbath. As the priest straightened his wool garments and hurried to the Temple to sacrifice a lamb, the young shepherd couldn’t help but wonder who was the greater sinner: the man who cannot stop labor on the Sabbath, or the man who benefits from the labor of a Sabbath-violator?
Saddened by the memories of the priest, the shepherd shook that particular thought from his head and kept walking along the ridge, looking out over the flock. Looking up at the now darkening sky, he judged his watch ended and drifted slowly back to the fire, his mind still clouded by the idea of Shabbat. There had been no Kiddush celebration that evening. The Sabbath bride had not been welcomed by the shepherds. No peace had been exchanged, no songs sung. But he knew that the old men around the fire would be discussing Adonai. It happened almost every night. They would be wondering when Messiah was coming. They would talk about Moses and the flight from Egypt. They would remember the prophets and the kings of old. These men were wise and good, and yet they never went to temple either. There were no synagogues on the plains of Israel. The passing Roman legions made poor dinner companions, and the sheep had a hard time commenting on the meaning of Torah. But the shepherds were still people, he thought. They were still children of HaShem.
And many of them had no choice but to herd sheep. Some were criminals, punished by the courts in this fashion. Others were outlaws, secret Zealots and revolutionaries who plotted the overthrow of Rome. But most were just poor men with no usable skills. Their economic situation had forced them into the one job available to them, besides begging. Not to mention the demand for wool and lambs was quite high. Everyone needed clothing and there were always sacrifices to be made. The nation would grind to a staggering halt if there were no shepherds. The nation would grind to a halt if the shepherds even took Shabbat as the proper day of rest. We are prisoners to our own nation, he thought. And they hate us for it. Where is the justice in that? Why is the priest holy when he sacrifices the fruit of my labors, but I am not, even when it is I who raised the lamb for the sacrifice?
He was surprised to arrive at the campfire, lost as he was in thought. And he was surprised at the darkness. In the span of time it took him to walk from the farthest end of the flock to the campsite, the sky had turned the color of ebony, pierced only by the light of twinkling stars, including an especially bright star than shone in the east, a star that seemed particularly close. No one could quite place it. Some insisted it had always been there. Others swore that it was a new star. As if there could be such a thing.
Some of the other shepherds looked up at his approach. “Judah! Come and sit. The fire is warm and the bread is not yet hard enough to take away your teeth.” The assembled company laughed at old Zadok’s familiar joke. Thankful for the warmth, Judah took the proffered loaf and joined the circle of men huddled around the blazing fire.
Judah’s appearance had apparently interrupted a conversation, as the younger Jonah began speaking as if he had already told most of his tale. “Anyway, they say all the inns are overflowing. I saw my cousin Deborah and her husband, and they managed to get a room, but they had to sell their donkey to pay for it. Blasted Quirinius. Why does Rome even care how many of us there are? So they can know when they’ve killed us all? Besides, who can afford such a trip? It’d take a week for me to get back up to Tzippori. And then a week back. Or go back to picking pockets. Either way, Rome’s not registering me!” Everyone suspected Jonah was a Zealot, but among the rag-tag outcasts of Jewish society, there was no judgment.
Judah chewed his loaf of bread thoughtfully. Quirinius had not been in power long. The power-plays of Roman politics were unfamiliar to the shepherds, but they heard things in the towns and villages where they bought their supplies and sold their sheep. Archelaus had been deposed, and Caesar had sent this Quirinius to govern the Roman province of Syria, which included Israel. Part of his purpose was to enact the census Jonah was grumbling about, for the purposes of properly taxing Israel. Joazar the High Priest had done much to assuage the feelings of violence among the people, but there were rumblings that the Zealots would soon strike. This had been the talk in tense Jerusalem in the spring, and now it seemed that many were complying with Quirinius, despite the rabbi’s opposition to census-taking. Judah had ignored the mandate as well. Even though Jerusalem was a few hours walk from the current location of the flock, he could no more spare time for the census than for Shabbat. The lambs never took days off.
All the shepherds were nodding sagely as Jonah continued to rant, most of them wondering what great scandal had gotten Quirinius sent to Israel, a land most of the Romans considered an ignorant backwater. They were content to let Herod continue his rule because none of them wanted the job, far as it was from Rome and the comforts of the imperial city. There was little intrigue to be had in Eretz Israel, and much fighting. It was not a comfortable position for anyone involved.
Light! Blinding light! Lost in their thoughts, all the men gathered around the fire were suddenly shocked when the dancing flames leapt up to heaven and became brighter than they had ever been. Several fell over, and other cowered on the ground as the flames rose higher and higher, increasing the power of the light to that of noon-day. The flames, now burning white-hot, slowly coalesced into the outline of a man’s form. This caused even more chaos. Some of the men, recovering the briefest ability over their own limbs, tried to run, only to fall again, tripping over their own feet. Others screamed. Some prayed. Judah shut his eyes and began to weep. Now we’ll be punished for breaking Sabbath, he thought, panicked. Adonai has finally had enough of us!
He opened his eyes quickly to make sure that he was actually experiencing this fiery turmoil, and was rewarded by the sight of the giant fire-man unfurling three huge sets of wings. Two seemed to carry him aloft, while two covered his feet and two obscured his flaming visage. Each flap of the great wings sent showers of sparks shooting into the night air, and when the being finally spoke, its voice was like a thunder clap.
“Dearest shepherds! Do not fear!” The being seemed to laugh at the little men stumbling around on the ground beneath him. “Do not be afraid! Brothers! Calm yourselves. I wish you no harm. I am but a servant of our God, sent to bring you a message of great glad news!”
Judah regained enough composure to stand. “What news?” he asked, fear tingeing the corners of his words. “Are we to be punished? We have broken the Sabbath, we know, but the sheep…”
The being cut Judah off before he could finish. “Punished? No, little brother.” He laughed again. “You are about to receive a great reward.” As he spoke, he seemed to notice the continued fear of the shepherds for the first time, and he became perceptively smaller, though he was still imposing and still composed entirely of fire. “Today, I am bringing you the greatest news of all! It shall bring joy to you, and your children. To your people, and to the Gentiles. Generations will continue to rejoice at the wonderful message I am going to give to you tonight!” He laughed a third time, a laugh of joy.
“Right now, at this moment, in Bethlehem – tiny David’s city – the Savior is being born! Messiah is come! Messiah is come! Your Christ and Lord is being born in this very moment! The promised one is coming into the world, dear friends! Christ is born! And if you go to Bethlehem seeking him, then this shall be a sign to you. You will find your Messiah lying in a manger and wrapped in the rags of his mother. It is a marvelous night, dear ones! The Salvation of the World has come! Redemption begins tonight!” He laughed once more, a final, triumphant laugh ringing with joy and comfort and faith. And as he laughed, he began to soar upward, where he was met by an entire host of the shining beings who lit up the sky like the brightest stars ever made. And as they blazed, they began to sing.
The melody was like nothing the shepherds had ever heard. It was at once somber and exultant, pregnant with emotion. There was trepidation and tinges of fear, but it was mingled with the overwhelming theme of gladness. “Glory to God!” The chorus rang out stronger than any chorus on earth had ever rung, full of hope in the coming of the Messiah. “Glory to God who reigns in the highest heavens! Glory be to our God forever!” The shepherds below continued to be amazed, but the angelic joy – for it was clear now that these beings were God’s messengers – was more than contagious. It spread among even the hardest heart inspiring joy and warmth and gladness. Some joined in the chorus, though they had never learned the words. Others danced about the hills wildly, expressing their joy physically. Still others lay on the ground transfixed, at once weeping and roaring with joyous laughter. Messiah had come!
The great chorus of heaven reached a crescendo of beauty and emotion, and as the very foundations of the earth shook with jubilant triumph, the angels sang the final notes of the melody. “In the name of the Prince of Peace, let there be peace on earth. Let all humanity, upon whom God’s favor rests, know peace! Messiah will bring you peace!” And as suddenly as the first angel had come, the whole host disappeared, the final note of their glorious song reverberating endlessly through the crystal air of the cold night. Stuck by the absence of the angels, the company of shepherds sat dazed, rubbing at their eyes in an attempt to stop their spinning heads.
It was Jonah who came to his senses first. “Bethlehem!” he cried. “We have to get there!”
Zadok mumbled something about the sheep, and Judah stumbled up from where he sat on the hard ground. “Get the sheep,” he said groggily, indicating some of the quicker shepherds.
“Forget the sheep!” Jonah cried. “We have to get to Bethlehem.”
“The sheep are our responsibility. They have to come with us.” Judah had never been so firm in his entire life. “We are their protectors, and they are our livelihood. We have to get to Bethlehem, yes. We must see Messiah. But we bring the sheep.”
The men had never moved so fast. Hardly fifteen minutes had elapsed and the entire herd of sheep was thundering along the hills, moving as fast as their little legs would carry them in the direction of Bethlehem. The shepherds moved along in front of them, leading the flock with the skill born of a thousand herdings. They moved east, and one of the shepherds exclaimed, “The Star! It is new! It heralds the birth of Messiah!” And so the shepherds fixed their eyes on the blazing star and continued to run to David’s City, where they were to find the new-born king.
Had there been anyone there to observe them, they would have looked a ridiculous sight. Twenty-odd shepherds running as fast as possible in front of a large flock of sheep, for no apparent reason. They carried no provisions aside from their staffs, and seemed not to care how exhausted their run was making them. Their feet flew over the rough terrain, ignoring fatigue and the stinging pain of rocks and roots. Nothing could slow them down, not with the angelic song echoing around in their ears.
It seemed like only minutes until Bethlehem appeared on the horizon, the little village illuminated by the great star glowing overhead. It seemed to Judah that if he only reached out, he could touch it, share in its warmth and glory. What a herald for the new Messiah! Heaven itself was being made new, starting with one glorious star.
On the outskirts of the city now, the shepherds slowed their approach, and the noise of panting men and confused sheep filled the stillness of the night. Windows were flung open as the animals began to protest the long forced march they had just endured. As the shepherds heard the insults of the people of Bethlehem, they could only respond with joyful proclamations. “Messiah has come! Bethlehem, Messiah is born tonight, in your midst!” Ignorant of the commotion, the shepherds lead their flock onward, searching the small town for the baby described to them by the angelic host.
It was not a hard task. There was only one inn within Bethlehem, and it contained the only stable, the one place that would contain a manger. Dim fires lit the cave with a warm, comfortable light, and at a distance it glowed like a coal. The sheep filled the city streets as the whole company streamed toward the stable. They must have looked like utter fools, those shepherds leading an entire flock into a tiny stable in a tiny village, but they were oblivious. They were going to meet Messiah.
There was little room in the tiny stable – already full of its normal inhabitants – and so, after the other shepherds had seen the baby, Zadok, Judah, and Jonah went in last, accompanied by a bleating lamb that would not be calmed. They approached with apprehension, nervous about what they would find. Huddled close around a warm fire was a young man – hardly grown into his first beard – and his wife, an even younger girl who, though drenched with the sweat and pain of childbirth, seemed to glow as she watched her precious baby boy sleeping in the hay of an old manger. They looked up when they heard the shepherds approach. “Come friends,” the girl said. “Come and see what God has done.”
The man was tense, his protective instinct flaring, but when he saw three dirty shepherds approach the light, he relaxed and beckoned with an outstretched hand. The three men drew near, and each stared at the sleeping child. Zadok smiled warmly at the baby. “Messiah,” he whispered. “So long have your people been waiting for you. And now you come to us. I never believed I would live to see the day.” Tears began to well up in the corners of the old man’s eyes and he fell to his knees beside the manger. “What is his name?”
“Jesus,” replied the girl, beaming as only a new mother can. “His name is Jesus.”
“And he shall save us.” Zadok placed one hand on the manger and bowed his head. “Welcome, Lord,” he whispered. “Welcome to your kingdom and your people. We rejoice in your coming. Bring us peace.” Drying his tears, he rose and moved to speak quietly with the father as Jonah took his place.
The young Zealot was visibly shaken. The angel had said a child, yes, but this was a baby. A helpless infant not more than a few hours old. He shook his head and asked out loud, “Will you defeat the Romans, little one? Will you be a great king?” He shook his head again and left the cave, more confused than ever.
Judah was the last to approach, and he looked down upon the baby with tender eyes misted by tears. “Are you the one we have come to see?” he asked quietly and sincerely. “Messiah the baby boy?” And then, struck by the moment, he laughed the joyous, wild laugh of the angels. The baby woke, but remained quiet, staring intently at Judah. “Of course!” he cried. “Of course. This is just like you. When kings and empires fail to comprehend your vision, you send a new king as a baby. When empires oppress, you send the helpless one. You are absurd, O God of my fathers, and this is beautiful. You send criminals and outcasts to worship the new king. And on Shabbat! You have done the greatest work of all on the day of no work! Of course!”
He looked at the young girl. “What is your name, most blessed of women?”
“Mary,” she replied sheepishly.
“Mary, your baby boy is Messiah.”
“I know. The angels said it would be so.”
Judah laughed again and looked down at the little baby king. “You have also kept the lambs on the Sabbath, haven’t you?” Jesus made no movement, except to smile up at Judah and coo. Judah took a tiny hand between his thumb and index finger. “Thank you, Lord.” Like Zadok, Judah began to weep with joy, falling to his knees beside the manger. “You keep your lambs on the Sabbath,” he wept.
Zadok and the young father came near to Judah and each placed a hand upon his shoulder. “Judah, we must go,” said Zadok softly. “Joseph has offered us what little room there is, but we are too many. We must go. And we must let this town know the wonders of this night. Messiah has come, my boy! God is with us. Let us wake all Bethlehem in joyous song!” And, thanking Mary and Joseph for their hospitality to even the dirtiest of shepherds, the two men exited the cave, leaving behind the little lamb and a beaming Mary, who rocked the young child back to sleep and treasured the words of the shepherds in her heart.
And as the shepherds went from the stable, they shouted and praised God, even Jonah, so unsure of little Jesus’ ability to overthrow the Roman oppressors. Bethlehem was woken, and everyone encountered the shepherd’s story. Some believed, and the world would never be the same. And it was all because God looks after his own lambs, especially on the Sabbath.