Friday, November 29, 2013

As shepherds watched their flocks by night

'Eeeww! He smells! Daddy, make him go away!'
All by the stall turned to stare. Jeremiah went the colour of new wine. Bethlehem was full of strangers that day. People pressed hard against each other.
'What do you expect?' said a man in fine clothes loudly. 'This census drags us to the middle of nowhere and forces us to rub elbows with all sorts. Now this boy,' he made a pretence of taking a deep sniff in his direction,' if my nose judges right, works with sheep. Boy! Tell the truth now – are you a shepherd?'
Jeremiah put down the loaf he was holding and started to walk away. The man continued talking.
'I knew I was right. Dirty, smelly types these shepherds.' Those standing nearby laughed.' And no manners whatsoever. If they did, they'd know to stay clear when decent folks are about. I don't know what the Romans are thinking anyway, forcing people to actually travel to their family's ancestral towns. Surely we could have just filled out a form where we lived? The inn-keepers are behind this, I'll wager. They're making a fortune out of all this. They probably bribed someone on the governor’s staff!'

Jeremiah fumed with anger. It wasn't his fault his clothes smelled of sheep; he was a shepherd after all. He was so cross, he didn't look where he was going. He bumped into someone.
'Easy now, young man.'
Jeremiah glared at him, prepared to take out his anger on another of the finely dressed strangers in his town. But the man was dressed in rough robes of home-spun cloth. A poor working man, Jeremiah thought.
'Sorry,' he mumbled.
'No harm done,' said the man with a smile. He was broad and strong looking, with a beard that was mostly grey. He had kind eyes, thought Jeremiah. 'I don't suppose you could direct me to the inn?'
Jeremiah realised the man wasn't alone. He led a donkey on which sat a young woman, not many years older than he was. She also smiled at Jeremiah. His heart gave a jump. He had never seen anyone so beautiful.
'It's just there,' said Jeremiah, pointing to the building a few yards away. 'But I think its full. There are so many strangers in town today.'
The man looked worried.
'I must check. We can't sleep outside tonight. It's too cold and …' his voice trailed off and he looked at the woman. He glanced down at the reins of the donkey he held in his hands and then cast his eyes about, looking for somewhere to tether it.
'I'll hold it,' said Jeremiah. 'You go see.'
'Thank you,' said the man. He handed him the reins and headed off through the crowds.
'You're very kind,' said the young woman. Jeremiah shrugged. He didn't think it would be right to tell her that he was more than happy to stand there and wait just as long as he could look at her.
'Your father seems very worried,' he said. 'He shouldn't be. Sleeping under the stars isn't so bad. I have to do it all the time. I'll be doing it tonight. I have to stay out looking after the flock.'
'My father?' she said. 'But Joseph isn't my father. He's my husband.'
'Oh,' said Jeremiah. 'I'm sorry … I …'
The woman laughed.
'Don't worry. I know he's older. But he's a good man. He's the kindest man I've ever known. But you,' she looked at the boy,' you looked upset when we met you. Is something wrong?'
Jeremiah kicked at a cobble stone then winced as he bruised his toe. He shot an angry look back at the stall.
'It's those strangers. They come to my town, where I've lived all my life. And then they complain. They say I smell. What do they expect? I'm a shepherd. I smell of sheep. Do they expect me to bathe in rose-water every time I come into town?'
The young woman frowned.
'That wasn't very kind of them. It's honest work. They seem to forget their fine clothes are made from wool. And that the meat and the cheese on the table comes from flock's like yours. And what about the lambs they buy for sacrifice in the temple – where would they get those if there were no shepherds? And don't they that King David himself was once a shepherd. If it was good enough work for a king, who are they to look down upon it? People should think before they talk. And when they do, they shouldn't be cruel.'
She sounded cross. Jeremiah smiled.
'Maybe I should take you over there and let you give them an earful,' he said. 'All I did was run away angry.'
Joseph returned. He didn't look happy.
'It's no use,' he said. 'There's no room. They couldn't even squeeze us in when I told them … I don't know what we're going to do.'
'Don't worry, Joseph,' said his wife. 'We'll find somewhere. But please help me down first. My back aches.'
The man helped from the donkey. He was very gentle. As she stood, she put her hands to her back and stretched. With surprise, Jeremiah realised she was pregnant. Very pregnant. He cleared his throat.
'I might know somewhere.' They both looked at him. 'My father has an old stable, not far from here. He's uses it for the sheep when he brings them to market. Its not great, but it's dry, with plenty of hay to sleep on. And there's an old brazier you can build a fire in, if it gets cold.'
'Are you sure?' said the man. 'Will your father give his permission?'
'He's with the flocks in the hills,' said the boy. 'But it's all right. He won't mind. He often lets travellers stay there if they have no where else, especially shepherds who can't afford the inn. I know he would want you two to stay there.'
'Well, that's very good of you,' said the man. The woman leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek.
'You're very kind,' she said. And Jeremiah, once again, turned the colour of new wine.

He settled the couple in his father's stable, bought bread at a different stall, and trudged back up into the hill where his father and brothers waited with the flock. It was getting dark by the time he arrived.
'You took your time,' grumbled one.
'Enjoying the sights of Bethlehem?' teased another.
'Leave the boy alone,' said his father. 'The town will be a mad-house with all those people. Be grateful he wasn't longer and that there was bread for him to buy.'
They ate their simple meal, laughing and joking. As the stars began to twinkle, with his belly full of new bread and fresh cheese, Jeremiah thought he wouldn't trade this life for anything. Let the fancy strangers in town laugh. The lady was right – they'd be the ones in trouble if there were no shepherds.
One of his brothers gave him a nudge.
'What's that?'
He nodded at the sky. There was a light glowing up high. Jeremiah frowned.
'I've no idea.'
The light grew nearer and brighter. His youngest brother began to tremble.
'I'm frightened.'
His father laid a hand on his shoulder.
'Don't be. I'm here.'
Jeremiah glanced around. Despite their father's comforting words, all his brothers were shivering. And he had noticed a slight shake in this father's hand as he reached out to reassure his brother. Jeremiah wondered what was going to happen to them. Was it a great comet, falling from the heavens? Were they about to die? His lips began to move in prayer.

The light was almost above them now. At the centre of of was what looked like a person. Jeremiah blinked his eyes and shook his head. How could there be a person in the sky surrounded by bright light? The person spoke.
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 then she was gone.
'What was that,' Jeremiah whispered to his father.
'And angel. God's messenger. God has spoken to us.'
'Well, whatever it was, I'm glad its gone,' said his eldest brother.
The skies lit up again without warning. The angel was back. But this time she was not alone. Thousands upon thousands of angels filled the sky. The darkness of the night was banished and it was brighter than the brightest day. All the shepherds, Jeremiah, his father, and his brothers, fell to the ground in fear and amazement. All the angels spoke at once. And it was sweeter than the most beautiful music that Jeremiah had ever heard. And again and again they said:Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.'
And then they were gone. They all lay there for a long while, not speaking, not moving. At last, his eldest brother spoke
'Do you think they're coming back?'
His father sat up. He shook his head.
'I don't think so.'
'Why did they come?' said Jeremiah
'They had a message from God.'
'But why us?'
'Who knows? They spoke of the Messiah. It is said that he will be a descendant of David. And David was a shepherd himself before he was chosen by God to be his anointed one. So perhaps this is why God sent us his angels to tell us this great news, that poor shepherds might be the first to know that the Son of David has come.'
'So what do we do?' said his youngest brother.
'Do? We do as the angel said. We go right now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’
'But where in Bethlehem?' said his eldest brother. 'The angel didn't say. It's a big town. And it's crowded with people. Where do we begin?'
'I don't know,' said his father. 'The inn perhaps? And if he's not there, we keep looking. The angel wouldn't have told us to go if we wouldn't be able to find him. Someone must know where there's is a new born child in a manger.'
Jeremiah laid his hand on his father's arm.
'Wait. I think I know where to look. And it isn't in the inn.'

The shepherds shuffled their feet outside the door of the stable. His father raised a hand to knock on the door, then paused.
'It is very late,' he said. 'What if this is the wrong place? What do we say to them at this hour?'
But Jeremiah pointed to the shutter,
'Look, there's a light. They're awake. And listen.'
It the silence of the pre-dawn night they heard the sound of a baby's soft cry, followed by that of a mother gently singing.
'I guess there's no harm in knocking then.'
He gave three soft taps on the door. After a moment it opened and Joseph stood there. He smiled when he saw Jeremiah.
'Come in,' he said in a quiet voice. The shepherds followed him in.
'Thank you for letting us sleep here,' he said to Jeremiah's father. The man just shook his head and stared past him. There, in the light of the fire in the old brazier, sat the young woman on some hay. Next to her was a rough manger of wood. It was filled with hay and in it lay a child, wrapped in swaddling cloths.
'It is just as the angel said,' Jeremiah said in a barely a whisper.
'Angel?' said Joseph. They told him and the young mother all they had seen that night and why they had come.
'What does it mean?' said his father when they had finished. Joseph smiled.
'It means, I think, just what the angel said. You have been give good news of great joy. Joy for you and for all people. This day our Saviour has been born, in the city of David just as Scripture foretold. A Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.'
As the men talked, Jeremiah crept closer to the manger. The young woman looked up at him and smiled.
'What do you think of him?' she asked.
Jeremiah looked at the child, who lay there without a sound, his only movement the gentle rise and fall of his chest.
'He's lovely.'
'Would you like to hold him?'
Jeremiah shook his head.
'I can't. He's the Messiah. And I'm just shepherd boy. And anyway, my clothes aren't very clean.'
The young woman lifted the child from the hay.
'It's all right. Right now the Messiah is still a baby. And baby's need to be held. And as for your clothes, remember what I said earlier. King David was a shepherd. I doubt he was any cleaner when he called in from the flocks and first anointed as king.'
She handed him the child. For a moment Jeremiah was afraid, worried he might hurt him. Then he cuddled him, just as he would a new born lamb. The baby stared up at him, his eyes dark in the dim light. Jeremiah wondered what he was thinking. What kind of thoughts would be going through a new-born Messiah's mind?

The baby took his finger. His grip was strong. He pulled it towards his mouth and pressed it to his lips. He gave a little gurgle. His mother laughed.
'He likes you.'
Jeremiah was glad of the dim light then as, for the third time that day, he turned the colour of new wine.

 ©  Fr Levi 2013 (all rights reserved)

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