A Shepherd’s Tale

I was stargazing again, though my son David said our eyes should be upon the sheep. “Wolves do not fall from heaven, they creep from the shadows of the land,” he would say when he caught me looking at the heavens. But the movement of the stars overhead always filled me with wonder. Night after night, they moved from east to west, seemingly the same, but slowing changing from season  to season. My grandfather told me long ago that the movement of the stars is like the movement of our lives: subtle and beautiful. He said we can learn patience from watching the stars. Perhaps that is true for some, but it has not been true for me.

On this night, I was fascinated by something I had not seen before. One star shone more brightly than all the others. It was as though a nail had pierced the darkness and light poured through from the great beyond. Even the moon’s light was never so pure, so white, so wholly without compare. ‘What can this be?’ I asked myself. ‘What can this mean?’

“Do not be afraid.” I heard the voice behind me and swung around, raising my staff so that I held it between my hands to ward off any blows the man might aim at me. It was an absurd reflex. Had he wished to harm me, I would have been dead. He had moved with such stealth I had not heard so much as a stone shift beneath his feet. And then the words which startled me became more than a sense of sound; they communicated to my startled mind meaning. “Do not be afraid.”

Slowly, moving in quietly from both sides, so they could asses the situation before joining me and leaving the flock vulnerable, David and the others approached. Keeping his distance, readying himself to battle any who had come to steal that which had been entrusted to us, David called to me, “What does he want, this stranger who roams in the night?”

The man turned to David. Suddenly his face glowed like that of a maiden in love, and the light of the moon showed he was barefaced, like one too young to wear a man’s beard. This confused me because he was built like a man, tall, with shoulders that could have carried even a ram. Another anomaly in this night of mysteries, I thought. He drew back his lips and smiled with delight, like one tasting the sweetness of honey for the first time.

“I proclaim to you good news,” he said, and the tenor of his voice filled me with anticipation. I knew  in that moment my life was changing forever. My breath halted in my chest. What would his announcement be?

“News of great joy,” he continued, and my heart beat loudly in my chest, “that will be for all people.” I could not breathe. Was this man a prophet? Had he come to summon me as once the mighty King David been summoned from his flock? Had the time long awaited come? I began to tremble. Fear of what the Lord might be calling me to do filled my heart. ‘Yes’ and ‘not me’ clung to one another in that moment.

“For today, in the city of David, a savior has been born,” he cried out in exaltation. “For you!” he continued. I was fleetingly disappointed, but relief then filled me like a deep breath only to be replaced by stunned amazement. A savior has been born for me, a lowly shepherd? I turned to look at David, expecting his sensible voice to break the man’s spell, but David was as shocked as I. “For me?” His mouth formed the words, but no sound came from his lips. I looked to the others and could see that like me, each believed this man had spoken to him. One by one, he caught our eyes and in his gaze I saw affirmation. Yes, he had spoken to all of us and to each of us.

“He is Messiah and Lord,” the stranger said, his voice firm with certainty and wonder and the joy of which he had spoken. I knew he believed this to be true, and in that moment, not even wondering why a God who always called men to lead his people would choose a vulnerable newborn, I believed as well. A savior, I thought. Praise God! A Messiah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! I began to worship God’s holy name.

But the man had not said all he had come to say. “This will be a sign for you,” he said, as though we had been arguing with him, as though our hearts had not already told us the truth of his words. “You will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”

“No!” my mind screamed. I was suddenly alert and disoriented, as though I’d been wakened from a dream with a loud scream. The infant should be at his mother’s breast, not in a manger, I thought. What kind of fool does not know this? Does not know the baby needs his mother’s warmth and she the baby’s suckling to stop the bleeding?

Suddenly the man was joined by others like himself, a growing crowd which began to chant as though in the synagogue, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” As they worshiped God, I made my way to David. I could see in his eyes that like me, he knew all was not well.

“Let us go then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us,” he said. I nodded. The child’s welfare had been entrusted to our care. As he spoke, the stranger and his friends departed, faded away as though they had been the waking dream of a tired man. We knew we could not leave the sheep unattended, and so it was decided that David, Moishe and I would go to Bethlehem.

We had no trouble finding the child. The stable was outside the city walls and his frail cry filled the night, as plaintive as a bleating lamb. Outside a man squatted by the door with his head in his hands. He was weeping with despair. As we approached, he looked up and whispered hoarsely, “Go away. Let them die in peace.”

His stupidity filled me with anger and I would have called  the man a fool, but David, knowing my temper, grabbed my arm to silence me. “Why do you say that?” he asked, his voice taking on the timbre of one in the marketplace preparing to bargain with a shopkeeper for a garment made of inferior wool, but sold as the finest. The fool, we learned, was a carpenter who knew nothing of birthing, who believed the long and painful laboring, the opening of his wife’s body and all that followed meant his wife lay dying. “No man suffering as she suffered could live,” he sobbed. “Oh! God! Why have you done this to my little Mary?” he cried out.

I exchanged glances with David and Moishe. They urged him to walk with them, and as they headed into the night, I entered the stable cautiously, not knowing what to expect. A light glowed in one of the stalls. I crept toward it. As the stranger had said, the baby was clumsily wrapped and lay in the manger, his head misshapen by the birthing. Poor thing, I thought. No effort had been made to clean or dry him. I picked him up carefully, sliding one hand under his head as I lifted him, and tucked him beneath my robe to warm him with my own body’s heat.

Then, I squatted beside his mother and brushed the hair back from her forehead. A woman should be here, I thought, with this child who gave birth to a child. What can an old man do for her? She turned her head and opened her eyes. She was so exhausted, her face registered no surprise when she saw me. She simply closed her eyes again. That was not good.

“Wake up!” I said sharply, and added unkindly, “What kind of lazy woman are you? Why do you sleep when there is work to be done?” As I had suspected, she had been raised well and made an effort to rise, to begin fulfilling her daily duties though exhaustion tugged at her.

“No, no,” I said brusquely. “Just lay on your side and feed this wailing child.” She was so young, she did not know what to do, but my wife had given birth to more than one child, and I instructed her. Before she could sleep agaiin, I urged food and wine from my pouch upon her. She needed the nourishment, I knew. When none remained, I let her sleep. I could do no more, I knew. She needed a woman.

When David and Moishe returned with the man, I told him this. He shook his head. None would come, he said. “Only Elizabeth, her cousin in Judah, believes Mary when she says that he has not been with a man.”

At this, I lost patience with the man. He’d left a healthy child and its mother to died because he was too stupid to care for them. Now, he was babbling like an idiot. “Of course, she’s been with a man, you imbecile,” I said scornfully. “A ram must mount the sheep for her to lamb.”

“No,” he insisted,” she has not.” He told us of a dream he’d had. He told us of his decision to go to Elizabeth’s house to talk with Mary. He shook his head as he recalled the bizarre story she had told him about the beardless stranger who had said she would conceive a son by the power of the holy Spirit. “I said to her, ‘How can this be?'” the man said. “She had not been looking at me, but  she looked at me then. Her troubled eyes met mine, and she whispered,’That’s what I asked him when he said I would bear a son.’ Then she began to weep and said, ‘I did not know it would be so hard, that I would be so alone.’ I knew then that I must do what I had been told in the dream to do, but both of our families turned their backs on us. And I have not always known what to do.”

That is obvious, I thought.We sat together for a long time — the man, whose name was Joseph, and I. David and Moishe, I had sent back to the sheep. I turned over the events of the night in my mind, and as dawn’s first hint of pink skimmed across the horizon, I told Joseph what had brought us to him. I told him that I did not understand the mysterious ways of God, but that I believed God had sent me to help  him. I told him how to care for the woman and her son. 

All of us, I had realized, must do our part if the Savior is to live and grow in our midst. All of us. In all generations.

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