I’d like to wish you all a Merry Christmas. Thank you for sitting with me as I’ve told you my stories this year. The following is what I imagine it was like for the shepherds to hear Jesus birth announcement.
There’s something about the quiet between bleats of the sheep that brings me to quiet. Tonight they are quiet, moving as one through the grass, swoping like birds as if they are one creature, our good dogs guiding them. The rain has been good to us. The grass is lush, our feet soaked and cold but it’s blessed cold because the prophets have prayed, I have prayed, “To you, O Lord, I call. For fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness, and flame has burned all the trees of the field. Even the beasts pant for you because the water brooks are dried up, and fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness” (Joel1:19 and 20.)
I wept when I felt the ribs of my sheep. Their hip bones jutted sharp angles under their fleece. How I love to sink my hands into their wool, the lanolin soothing my hands. And G-d blessed be he, heard our prayers and brought us rain and these sheep will be fat, their lambs healthy for the temple sacrifices. “Be glad O children of Zion, and rejoice in the Lord your God, for he has given the early rain for your vindication; he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and latter rain as before” (Joel 2:23).
After the lambs are weaned, I will say goodbye to my favorite ewe, Tamar, because she is old and I had to pull her lambs. She’s never made me do this. It’s time she entered my pot to feed my family.
The stars rise above us, so bright they bubble like milky froth, warm from a cow. I listen to the sheep and look up at Orion and the Big Dipper. The seven sisters look like a smeared fingerprint. My feet search their way along the uneven ground and I balance on my staff. I think about what that shepherd prophet Amos says, “He who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning and darkens the day into night.” Then I gaze at the lights of Bethlehem. The town is brimming with people who trace their lineage to King David. Even I have that king’s blood running in my veins. The great King David who knows what it means to be a shepherd. I sing his words daily: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” he sang and taught us to sing. “He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul.” (Ps. 23:1- 3). This night I feel restored. My newborn son is waiting at home.
When I was tired of being quiet, I walk over to Iddo. We chat about how his uncle Joseph just arrived with his very pregnant wife. He cups his hand over his mouth to speak because his voice carries and our boss James is standing less than ten feet away. “My father says she’d gone off to the hill country to be with her cousin Elizabeth, a woman past childbearing age, who needed help with her pregnancy. Strange stories around that boy’s birth. Her husband was high priest that year and came out of the Holy of Holies mute until his son was born. Joseph wept because he loved Mary. He was going to send her back to Elizabeth when suddenly he married her.
“They came from Nazareth for the census. My father told them the most private place for her to give birth would be under the house, where our animals stay. I didn’t dare ask my uncle if the stories were true. His eyes danced whenever we talked but he also seemed sad and older than I remembered. Even large with child, Mary is beautiful. She glows from inside but she holds her back, like women do when their child weighs them down. If he’d put her away, I would have taken her to be my wife.” Iddo looks dreamy. The boy has it bad for this girl.
“You’d better watch yourself,” I nudge him. “Your Rachel won’t be happy if she finds out. How’s the wedding plans coming along?”
“We’ve paid her dowry. A month from now we’ll become one,” he says, the look on his face, so eager, so full of a passion ready to be let loose. But he has no idea how marriage will try his patient soul, especially when the babies come. I am looking forward to teaching my boy the ways of sheep but that’s a long way off. Sheep at night are better than a wailing babe.
All of a sudden, the red light that floods the world just before the sun tops the horizon spreads through the fields. “What’s that?” I ask.
Iddo shrugs. I’ll never forget the look of terror, of awe on his face.
The light spreads like flood waters over a dry plain. I see no sun. I grab my staff to defend the sheep and my heart pounds. I blink. My bowels loosen. Is this what the pillar of fire that lead our people looks like? A man glowing like the sun as it tops the horizon, stands next to us as if he wants us continue our gossip. His eyes, his face, his lips are joy. And a sense of victory. He looks like he’s beaten the champion gladiator. His joy is the hardest to behold. I drop my staff. I cover my face with my hands. I smell the grime from rubbing my sheep’s back.
The angel’s hand touches my shoulder. A brook, a warm brook streams down my shoulder, across my heart, into my bowels. They calm. I do not soil myself. The water runs like lightning through my feet into the ground. I don’t move.
“Do not be afraid. I’ve got good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” His voice echoes against the stars. His voice sounds like a whisper.
For all people. Not just us children of Abraham. Everyone. Even the Romans who rule with a rod of iron? Will this baby take that rod, like the great man, Daniel said, will he take it from their hands and rule them? I want to ask, but I didn’t dare. The words ring in my head: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:20).
Does this mean strangers will tend our flocks, that we will eat the wealth of the nations, that we will have everlasting joy? Will the wolves lay down with our sheep? Will my son’s sons play over adders’ dens?
His voice sounds like the shofers blowing in the temple. “And this will be a sign for you; you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” Tell us more, I want to say, but suddenly there are more of him surrounding us, singing and twirling and dancing. There are more of them than we could count. Their robes swirling with the colors of the rainbow. I couldn’t bear their joy. My eyes leaked.
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will among men,” they sing. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will among men.” The songs repeats and dances.
Our dogs howl matching the Angels’ song, their voice nearly as beautiful. One by one the sheep lay down. Some stretch out. They grow silent. Then the angels fade as they step through a veil, shimmering like curtains in a breeze. I’ve seen that veil sometimes in the sky, waving and rippling and I wondered if it was a door to heaven. I guess now I know.
Iddo whispers, “I think it’s Mary and Joseph. Let’s go look.”
“What about the sheep?” I ask. Angels or no, there’d been wolves sighted in the district.
“They’ll be fine. Look at them. The dogs and angels will watch over them.”
The day of the Lord is a day of deep gloom and darkness. Don’t desire the day of the Lord. That’s what the prophet said. And here Christ the Lord is lying in a cattle trough, wrapped with strips of cloth binding him, the smell of birth faint in the air. We tell his mother what the angels said. She smiles knowingly and looks down at her son. He’s perfect. Those tiny eyelashes. Those perfect lips. His nose not to big, not to small. We clap Joseph on the back, congratulating him.
“Would you like to hold him?” She asks us. I am startled by her trust and her generosity.
“No. No,” we hold up our hands. How could we take the Savior into our arms? But my brother, my silent brother who does all the jobs we don’t want to do, held out his hands. Mary handed him over. The baby smiled and then coughed. He patted him and rocked him. I’d never seen my brother so peaceful. Then he hands him to me like he was handing me a piece of bread. I could feel the baby’s weight in my arms, the weight of a thousand stars, the life of a thousand sheep running through fields, his buttocks like the round globes of ripened grapes.
If you’d like these essays to appear in your inbox, click here.