Saturday, 29 December 2018

Shepherd Monologue: Christmas Day Talk

My name is Dan and I’ve been a Bethlehem shepherd ever since my bar mitzvah.  It’s the only life I’ve ever known.

Us shepherds are a predictable lot.  When you work with animals and the seasons you tend to get into a routine.

That night you Christians talk about, the night that changed my life for ever – well, it wasn’t in the winter.  You see we’re on the hills during the lambing season in the spring – that’s when it happened, a spring night at the height of the Roman occupation of our country.

I’m old now and rarely go up on the hills these days but I remember that night as if it were yesterday. We seemed to be at the centre of it all and that’s not really us.  Usually we live away from the action.  Every spring we take the flocks out of their winter corrals and they graze at will on the hills and the lambing starts.  We can be away from the village for days, even weeks.  It’s as if we live in the background, just remembered by our families but forgotten by the shopkeepers, merchants and civic authorities.

It’s not that we just become village outsiders, we’re temple outsiders too.  You see Jerusalem is just a stone throw from Bethlehem, yet we only ever go there to sell our lambs to the priests – never to worship.  They say our hands are unclean.

Odd then, really, to think God gave us ringside seats at the birth of his beloved son.  Suddenly that night we became insiders.  And from what I heard of Jesus later that seemed to me to be part of his message – that God draws us all in, draws us to his love and makes us feel as if we belong, no longer outsiders.

Another thing I’ve been thinking about recently is how it happened all so quickly.  We weren’t being religious that night, we weren’t even praying.  Just going about our ordinary jobs.  Somehow, I always used to think you met with God at Synagogue or on Shabbat.  That night was so ordinary.  We’d just finished making sure one of our sheep, who had been having trouble, safely delivered her young and then suddenly there was this piercing bright light – at first it was almost blinding, but then it became the warmest shining imaginable.  We were told not to be afraid.  We were told the promised one had been born.  There seemed to be the most joyful singing in the air.  It felt like a dream yet became for us the most real conviction any of us ever held.

Still thrills me really.  That announcement to us as we went about our every night lives.  I’m sure when your country has a new king the heralds will stand on the balcony of palaces and proclaim the start of a new reign.  That night the Herald Angels choose to announce the news to us.  But isn’t that part of the message too.  Jesus came for everyone just as God’s love is for all – so why not announce the incarnation to shepherds on a hillside.  That said I still smile at the audacity of God by passing the priests and choosing me and my mates!

And the next bit that happened just blows my mind away even all these years later.

Those angels asked us to go and worship.  That’s all.  We didn’t even have time for a wash!  We went as we were.  Grown men.  To be truthful most of us shepherds know more about lambs than babies.  But off we went.  We asked Jacob to stay behind and make sure the flock was OK.  The rest of us ran to Bethlehem.

It was as if we were guided to that family and the place where Jesus had been born.  We went around the back and looked in.  Joseph asked us if we’d like to look.

Mary appeared exhausted but blissfully happy.  It was all so ordinary, a scene so full of love and hope – yet the words of the angels rang in our ears – that this birth was special – that God was blessing our world with his presence in this child.

As I look back now the thing that strikes me most of all is that we didn’t have to say anything, we went just as we were – all we were asked to do was to welcome the child.  It felt to me then, as it does today, that we were welcoming God come amongst us.  We knelt, we bowed our heads – and then we touched his brow, smiled at Mary, shock Joseph’s hands and walked back up the hillside in a shared silence that went so deep.

In our hearts we knew things would never be the same again, God was with us to bless us and show us the way. 

Amazing really what can happen when you are just watching the flock by night – all seated on the ground.

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