The Shepherd's Tale

The Shepherd's Tale

December 25th, 2012 in Opinion Free Press

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.

And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

... And she brought forth her first-born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, 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 Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

Glory to God in the highest,

and on earth peace,

good will toward men.

- Gospel According to Luke

•••

Welcome, stranger. I trust you'll stay for a bit of supper. Roast lamb and fresh bread. Lentils and barley. My tent is your tent. The nights grow chilly this time of year up here in the hills, and you'll want shelter, too.

Wash, sire, while I throw some more kindling on the fire. We seldom get visitors up here, and any are welcome. It can get lonely with nothing but the flock to keep you company. No wonder the Book compares Him to a shepherd. Can you imagine His loneliness! For there is no one like unto Him ... But how I ramble. Forgive me.

I can tell you're from the city, you have that look about you. And how fast you move. What brings you to these poor parts, a learned gentleman like yourself? Ah, yes, a scribe.

The Word is even stronger out here. The crowds in the city - multitudes, multitudes - get in the way. No wonder the Prophets retired to the desert when they felt the need. Things are clearer out here, like the stars in their heavenly course. You can see them from here. From afar off. There's none of the city's commotion to get in the way.

Maybe that is why I like the parts of the Book about the wilderness and the forty years of wandering best. Not the stories and miracles, you understand, the pillars of cloud by day and pillars of fire by night, but just the stillness of it. Be still and know I am God. I'm not sure you can do that in the city.

But I don't suppose you came all this way to talk to an unlettered shepherd about taxes and Caesar's decree and all that. You must be here to talk about the night it happened, about the angel - messenger, really - and the heavenly choir and the strange light.

Ah, yes, that night. Now don't go and quote me. People already think we shepherds must be imagining things, lonely life that we live up here. Also, there's no need to use my name. It isn't important anyway. No one will ever remember it, or even record it. Or perhaps even write down what we saw, or imagined we saw, strange and wondrous as it was - to us anyway. And terrifying, truth to tell. You don't want to get too close to the holy, not if you can help it. It can be dangerous.

But we were assured this was good news. And not just for us but for all the world. And in that instant everything changed, as if there were a new heaven and a new earth. I know it sounds improbable, even impossible, absurd, but that was the feeling that night and, even stranger, it is still with me. It changes you forever. That's the strangest thing of all if you believe - it stays with you.

Please, wash up, refresh yourself. You must have had a long journey. Blessed be He who has commanded us about washing our hands. Good appetite! No need to rush. Tarry here with us for a while. The story will hold. Perhaps forever. It's the kind of tale you can imagine being repeated again and again.

I know how unlikely all that must sound to a man of the world, a sophisticated gentleman like yourself, someone who has Greek and Latin, not just our poor country dialect. But that's what we saw that night, or thought we saw. I can only tell you how it felt, still feels, will feel. There was something . . . timeless about it. As if years from now -- no, centuries -- some other scribe will be writing it down. I've already started thinking of it not as our story but The Story. The one that explains everything, that unwraps the seventh seal.

Can you believe that? Of course not. That's not what scribes do, is it? You just write down what the witnesses say. Maybe you had to be there, but there was something eerie about the light that night. Like nothing I've ever seen before. The star! Sometimes things escape the learned astronomers that only shepherds far away from the city lights can see.

I see you're smiling. I'd have my doubts in your place, too. Maybe you had to be there. All I can tell you is that, sore afraid as we were, what happened that night was assuring, too, comforting and awful at the same time. Like the feeling you had when you were a child in the Temple, fearful and loved all at once in His presence. We were children again, reborn, and everything was ... new. And we weren't alone any more. And never would be. Not from that night on.

- Arkansas Democrat Gazette