The Advent – “Hark,” the Herald Angel Sang

This is a fictionalized account of the Shepherds the night Jesus was born.


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“The wolves are out tonight.” For a shepherd, there was no greater danger, no greater risk to life and limb.  In this case, the warning was taken both figuratively and literally.

Yes, the wolves were out. Their howls carried on the wind. But the greater danger lay in the valley, bristling with travellers and visitors.  On top of the big festival ushering in the New Year, a whole throng plodded to the cities of their family origin for the big Roman registration.

The Shepherd’s family had lived in the region for centuries – since the Conquest, they liked to claim. No, not Roman or Parthian or Roman again or Greek or Persian or Babylonian conquest… but the Hebrew one, way back.  The Big One.

The Shepherd sighed.  There had been a lot of conquests and probably more to come.

But all the moving marauders, all the vivacious visitors, all the cornucopian caravans stirred up thieves; thieves who would roam the countryside to steal simple sheep, kill sleeping shepherds, and destroy dynamic destinies.

The Shepherd looked over his flock with approving alertness. With him as their shepherd, they would not want.

Other local shepherds were bringing their flocks to his sheepfold that night, and they would take turns guarding the flock through the night. The flocks would mix amongst themselves, but the shepherds did not worry. They knew their sheep and their sheep knew them.

The Shepherd just had to call and start walking, and his sheep, knowing his voice, would follow, trusting that he would take them to lie down in green pastures and lead them besides still waters.

The sheepfold, a low fence that encircled a large space for the sheep to rest in, had a narrow opening, just large enough for one or two to squeeze through. There was no gate. The Shepherd stood at the opening, barring the way between predator and prey.

Tonight, the fold would be crowded, but tomorrow they would head away from the crowded suburbs of Jerusalem. The crowds didn’t much care for shepherds. An unsavory, uneducated, unsophisticated lot, shepherds tended to smell like their flock, tended to care for them more deeply than for civilized folk, and tended to not care too much what others who gladly purchased their wool or spotless lambs for Passover thought of them.

Parting with precious lambs he helped ewes to birth into the world was hard.  No one understood the price for sin as the Shepherd.

As night approached, the others shepherds herded the sheep into his fold, the little critters interacting with each other like… well, let’s face it. They’re sheep. They didn’t much notice that a neighboring flock was joining them for a sleepover.

Few words passed between the men. They mainly just sat around the fire, and stared across the valley into Jerusalem, brightly lit beneath the starry, starry night.

“It’s shining on the Temple.” From their vantage on the hill that resembled a skullcap, the youngest of them with the sharpest eyes could peer directly into the Temple gates, and in daylight could even see the heavy curtains that separated man from God.

The Shepherd had often wondered how many spotless lambs would be required to remove that veil forever, and then shuddered at the thought.  God set loose from the Temple of Stone? Never. Besides, God was best left to priests; He would care little of shepherds and understand them even less.

“No,” the Eldest said. “It’s shining on yon village.” About five miles away.

It was. The star hung low and bright. Wisps of fog veiled much of the countryside.

And then in a flash, the starry night faded before sea of bright white light. Before them, their own shadows appeared, dashed to the horizon and then disappeared. They leapt to their feet, spun around, staffs and rods held up and what to their wondering eyes appeared…?

An angel of the Lord, filling them with fear! And what can only be described as glory surrounded the angel and the men.

And then words he spoke; words would echo for all eternity: “Fear not. For behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

Behind the angel, the skies rolled up like a scroll and a mighty army appeared, arrayed in rank upon rank of angelic beings beyond description as far as their eyes could see.

A declaration rang out with fervency, as if every angel had been aching with anticipation since the Fall to announce the good news: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will towards men!

And more they said, a waterfall of thunderous praise to God, much more than he could remember.  And then, the scroll rolled back and the heavens disappeared, and when their eyes adjusted to the star field and their hearts and breathes beat again, their eyes turned back to yon village.

“Bethlehem is the City of David,” whispered the Eldest. “Let us go and see this thing that has happened.” He started off.

“We cannot just leave the flock!” It’d take days to cross the distance, leading the sheep, and to leave them unguarded in the wolf-invested ranges would be disastrous.

“The Lord has made this event on this night known to us,” the voice cracked from little use, or from awe, the Younger couldn’t tell.

They conferred further. The Younger said, “I will stay and guard the sheep. Make haste, and if you can, return this night, so I can go and see too.”

The others raced off to see that which they could not understand: the Savior born this night.  They left the Younger alone with that very thought.

He sat in the opening, staring across the terrain to Bethlehem, listening to the wolf cries on the wind, and the hours passed.  A fear of another sort crept into his soul. What if the wolves attacked while he slept? Or some sneaking thief slipped a blade between his ribs?

“He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yeah though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

With these words in his heart, he lay across the opening, becoming the sheep’s gate to safety, and he drifted off.

Panting footsteps woke him in the darkest of night. One of the shepherds had raced back. The Younger leapt to his feet and without a word, dashed off. It’s not too late. It’s not too late.

His legs pumped. His stomach growled. His breath rasped.  He thirsted.

He was running through dangerous lands, known hideouts of bandits and thieves, and he felt fear, and he remembered, “Thou preparedst a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; thou annointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

As long as he ran towards the Savior, he knew he would be ok.

As he entered the village, the other shepherds beckoned him. The townsfolk kept their most important animals in their homes on the first floor for protection and the added heat in the autumn nights, while the families slept in the upper rooms.  With so many guests, even the spare guest rooms were full, but the Younger could not understand why a newborn baby would not be in a guest room, but in a feeding trough, a place worthy of maybe a shepherd, where the sheep knew they could eat.

The exhausted mother was sleeping in a bed of straw and blankets. The husband guarded the manger, eyes revealing conflicting emotions. No other members of the household were present, save the village midwife. The Shepherd did not understand why the community rejected the mother and her baby, a rejection he felt as well, but he did not need to know every answer: he just needed to know the way to the Savior.

With his eyes, he asked permission.

The husband nodded. The mother opened her eyes to watch the Shepherd slowly walk forward, until the Baby was in view.

Wonder flooded his heart. God does understand rejection and He pleased Himself to reveal to lowly shepherds, those rejected by the community, His heart for humanity and the Person He would redeem humanity through to Himself.

The Shepherd fell to his knees and bowed his head and cried, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever!”

~~~

In the morning, the shepherds decided against retreating from the world, but instead split up to invade the world with the good news that the Savior had come, and nothing – not shame or disdain of men, not fear of rejection or persecution- would keep them silent, -for who could understand better the mission of God than lowly shepherds, keeping watch over their flock by night?

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