Jonathan shivered and pulled the camel hair aba more tightly around his shoulders. It was still fairly mild for the time of year, but he knew that these clear skies would soon bring bitter, frosty nights. Tonight though, the stars seemed to be vying to outshine each other as they twinkled brightly overhead and the moon, a silver crescent, hung low in the sky westward.
They had been gradually leading the sheep down from the hills into the valley’s pasture, and the limestone cliffs at their back were providing some welcome relief from the dusty winds that had been blowing hard. He was grateful in some ways that the size of the flock meant that they could not all be gathered into the sheepfold around the Migdal Edar* but had instead been allowed to graze the cleared harvest fields; nibbling a few remnants that the gleaners had missed.
Anyway, he didn’t really like going into the town; they were forbidden from going into the synagogue and the people in the streets stared at them and often moved aside as if they were unclean – like lepers! No doubt they did smell a bit, but who wouldn’t after being surrounded by sheep all day. But it was more than that – they wanted to keep him out of God’s house, but he was pretty certain that God heard his prayers anyway.
Still, the town looked very peaceful and it’s residents no doubt dreaming as they slept in their comfortable beds. He looked over at his younger brother Caleb, laid on his back with his eyes closed, gently snoring… some shepherd he was at keeping watch! Yet he knew that at the first sign of danger he’d be up and ready to use his sling to defend the sheep. He’d let him sleep for a while longer as it had been a hard couple of days for his new apprentice.
Jonathan shifted his body slightly to look down the hill. It was uncomfortable sitting on the hard ground; maybe he’d take a stroll in a minute to talk to some of the other shepherds he could see sitting in small groups. He was just about to rise when the whole world disappeared – his eyes were open but a blinding flash had taken away his night vision. Then a clear melodic voice spoke somewhere above his head telling him not to be afraid. Without seeing him, he could feel Caleb clutching his arm.
The voice continued to speak, and by shielding his eyes he could just make out the hazy shape of a man surrounded by a halo of light, who seemed to be hovering above the field. The few words he caught were of ‘good news’ and of ‘a Saviour being born in David’s town’…… Bethlehem! After he had spoken, the angel, for Jonathan was certain that’s who the figure was, appeared to expand, but then he realised that he had been joined by a whole host and that the entire sky was lit up as if it was daylight. Their ethereal song was full of praise and glory to God; of peace and goodwill.
As the last heavenly notes faded into the air, Jonathan realised that dawn was breaking and he got up and hurried with Caleb over to the other shepherds who were equally amazed. Wordlessly, they all made their way into the town, a few of the sheep and lambs bleating as they followed their shepherds. Without obvious direction, they found the open door of what appeared to be an animal enclosure, from which the faint glow of an oil lamp could be seen.
Looking inside they could see two people bending over what appeared to be a hay manger. The man looked up, slightly startled; then beckoned them to enter. Humbly, they made their way in and in the makeshift crib, Jonathan could see a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, he gazed down at the child, still speechless. Meanwhile Caleb had squirmed his way through to the front and now put his hand out to touch the baby. Jonathan went to stop him, but the child’s mother nodded and smiled, and the infant reached out to grasp Caleb’s proffered finger.
The older shepherds began to tell the story of what had happened in the fields and why they had come. The man seemed to think it incredulous, but the baby’s mother, perhaps already aware of how special this child was, listened to all they had to say and pondered their words.
Afterwards, Jonathan and the others made their way back to their temporarily abandoned flocks, but what to do with the news of all that had happened that night? Who could they tell and who would believe them? Certainly not the rabbis or synagogue leaders. He, stood still for a moment to think, ‘We may be the despised guardians of the Pascal lambs but maybe we have just seen a new kind of shepherd who will lead us beyond the Temple sacrifices – a true shepherd of the sheep’
Then he turned and ran to catch up with Caleb, who was already striding across the field. Right now these sheep needed him, and as he called out to them they answered with baas and mehs as they recognised his voice.
While shepherds watched their flocks by night, all seated on the ground; the angel of the Lord came down, and glory shone around. “Fear not!” said he, for mighty dread had seized their troubled minds, “Glad tidings of great joy I bring to all of humankind. To you, in David’s town, this day is born of David’s line a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord, and this shall be the sign. The heavenly babe you there shall find to human view displayed, all meanly wrapped in swathing bands, and in a manger laid.” Thus spake the seraph and forthwith appeared a shining throng of angels praising God on high, who thus addressed their song, “All glory be to God on high, and to the earth be peace; goodwill henceforth from heaven to earth begin and never cease!” Nahum Tate (1652-1715) based on Luke 2:8-14
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*Migdal Edar literally means ‘Tower of Eder’ or ‘Tower of the Flock’ in Hebrew. Biblical records locate it near to the present day city of Bethlehem. It is mentioned in Genesis 35:21 and scholars interpret a passage in Micah 4:8 as a prophecy indicating that the Messiah would be revealed from the ‘tower of the flock’