~by Joanna Wood~
This story is a work of fiction, but based on events that I (the writer) believe in and believe to be true as a Christian (see Luke 2:1-20). May they inspire hope, joy, and love in your celebration of Christmas this year.
Bethlehem was a sleepy town – certainly not one of major significance, besides being the birthplace of Israel’s greatest king. Now to the Roman Empire, it was nothing but a backwater town; not too important, and not big enough to make any sort of trouble.
The glow on the horizon was diminishing as the sun sank further beyond the hills, and torches were being lit within the city and at its gates. The traffic through the main gate was beginning to thin when the shepherds led their flock out towards the hilly plains beyond. Old Phallu led the way, leaning on his gnarled staff but going at a good clip; Ishbak and grumpy Shabbethai walked towards the middle, the former telling a new story while the latter stayed his usual stoic self. And then there was little Asher (nephew to Phallu) hop-skipping at the end, keeping up well despite having a clubbed foot. He was in charge of the lambs so none would stray from the flock, and therefore he took his job very seriously.
Ishbak scratched his lower back with his own staff. “Well I don’t know about you fellows, but I’m glad to be gone from the city at last.”
“Aye,” Phallu called over his shoulder, “too many folks in town. No good for the flocks.” He hacked noisily and spat to one side.
“It’s that blasted home tax the Roman dogs have put on us…”
“Hush, Ishbak,” Shabbethai growled.
“What? There are no soldiers around to hear us – who would follow shepherds?”
“You never know these days.”
Asher looked up from nudging a sheep that had stopped. “I rather liked all the people arriving,” he called. “It made the day exciting and interesting.”
Shabbethai rolled his deep-set eyes. “You say so because you were too busy being distracted by them and not paying attention to your work.”
The boy shrugged and kept hobbling. It was true, he had been distracted, but Shabbethai’s harsh words could not dampen his spirits. There had been so much movement that day, and so many people from so many different places! After a time, there were so many colors that they wove together like a carpet. And what a fascinating carpet it had been! Yet he did understand the grumbling – Bethlehem was a quiet place, and having so many new bodies hurrying about and causing a ruckus made the sheep uneasy and flighty, and therefore harder to keep calm. He’d had to chase a number of them down through the dusty streets packed with strangers, and though exhilarating, it had been exhausting as well.
At last, the shepherds descended into a shallow valley where the flock spread out to graze and settle in. Though the rainy season was at hand, it had not rained for several weeks, but the temperature certainly had dropped, and so the men were happy to build a large fire and huddle close around it with their robes gathered in and their feet warm inside lambskin boots. Even the sheep gathered around, some even sitting with their sides against the backs of each man. As the shepherds began pulling out supplies for their evening meal, Asher limped in and out of the flocks, checking to see that all the lambs were accounted for. It was a job he enjoyed, for it brought warmth to his heart to see the frail little creatures nestled against their mothers for the night.
Then in the distance, there came a sharp set of bleats – someone must be lost. The shepherd boy wove his way around many fluffy bodies before finding the lamb standing on the outskirts of the flock, crying towards the eastern horizon, away from the rest of the sheep. Asher knelt beside the lamb and stroked it comfortingly; oddly enough, the little beast wasn’t shaking with cold or fear. Even its bleats sounded different, almost questioning. The boy looked about for the mother, thinking perhaps that she had strayed away, but instead found her plodding up from behind. “Here, little one,” Asher murmured, trying to turn the lamb back towards the flock. “Your mother is here, and she wants to bed down. Go to her; she is this way!” But the lamb kept turning back with its face to the east.
The wind picked up and swirled through the grasslands, causing Asher to pull his robes closer; meanwhile the lamb grew silent, its floppy ears lifting slightly, as though listening. “What a strange fellow you are,” the boy commented with a smile, and gathered it into his arms. The mother sheep seemed to nod gratefully, and headed back to a grassy spot to lie down on. Once Asher had deposited the wayward lamb, he looked towards the eastern horizon as the lamb had done. It was dark now, and the clear sky was sparkling with stars, but there was nothing out of the ordinary or noticeable. Yet there was a feeling of something about to happen, like the expectancy for a celebration about to begin. Asher frowned at the feeling as he headed back to the fire, not out of worry but out of confusion.
“Uncle Phallu,” he asked as he seated himself near the firepit. “Is there to be a festival soon?”
The old shepherd finished chewing a lump of cheese, swallowed, and coughed again. “What? No, boy – no festivals for some time. Why do you ask?”
“I was just wondering.” Asher took the loaf of brown bread and the small knife from Ishbak and began carving himself a slice. “I found a lamb bleating at the edge of the circle; it had wandered from its mother, but it was turned towards the east and calling loudly. It was strange…”
“What in the world does that have to do with festivals?” Shabbethai asked incredulously. “I swear this boy has stones in his head.”
“It was because I felt as though something was about to happen,” Asher explained. Then he realized how silly that sounded and closed his mouth. At least the firelight would not betray his reddening face.
Phallu cocked his head at his nephew, but Shabbethai laughed. “What did I tell you, Phallu? Stones for brains, this one. Boy, the only thing that will happen out here is that we shall be sleeping soon. And good riddance to any excitement, especially in Bethlehem.” He snagged a water skin and drank.
Ishbak shrugged and nudged Asher with an elbow. “Don’t worry about it, boy,” he murmured. “Shabbethai is just bored, and when he is bored, he enjoys the sound of his own voice. Don’t let it bother you.”
Asher settled back against a nearby sheep and tucked his robes around him. Ishbak’s words helped some – they always did when Shabbethai started picking on him. His uncle didn’t seem to mind it, and that was what bothered him the most about the other man’s needling. Thankfully, there was never any mocking of the boy’s club foot; Phallu saw to that at least.
The boy sighed and let his thoughts drift. The night breathed softly around the circle. Insects whirred quietly from their hidden places in the grass and beneath rocks, and every now and then there were quiet movements from the sheep. In the distance, the sounds within Bethlehem began to soften as the city began to nestle in for the night.
“I don’t know, Shabbethai.” Phallu’s wheezy voice made its way back into the boy’s attention. The old shepherd was scratching at his snowy beard as he spoke. “A lamb crying into the night when its mother is right behind it? You must admit that is odd.”
The big man wiped his mouth on the back of his arm. “Not odd enough to warrant looking into,” he replied somewhat uncaringly. “I’ve had sheep not in their right mind before, and the best thing to do is make sure they don’t disrupt the flock or wander off. If that starts happening, then you simply butcher it.”
“Well, yes, but…”
Suddenly the campfire snuffed out, and a different light exploded around them. There was no sound, no movement to warn of the sudden burst. There was a golden sense to it that no amount of torches or bonfires, or even sunshine could replicate. The shepherds ducked with hoarse cries and buried their faces in their robes, and the sheep leapt up, crying out in confusion and fear as they began to scatter.
“Phallu? Phallu, are we dead?” Ishbak’s normally baritone voice seemed to squeak with fear. Asher peeked out from beneath the hem of his robe to see where the others were. While the sheep had fled, the men had simply fallen back from where they sat. In the strange golden light, he could see his companions clearly. Shabbethai was face down on the ground, his rump in the air, his meaty hands clutching his robe around his face. Phallu was on his back with his arms crossed over his face. And poor Ishbak had actually jumped to his feet, but then realized that decision may have been a bad one, and had dropped to a crouch, his hands clenching and unclenching over his head. He was shaking, his face pinched in a grimace of uncertainty, and his eyes tightly shut.
“Oh dear Jehovah,” said Phallu’s voice in a rasp of a whisper, and Asher risked another look at his uncle. The old man was in the process of sitting up, and though he still kept one arm up, his eyes were wide and fixed on something beyond the campfire. Still keeping his robes close, Asher turned slightly and saw a pair of feet nearby. They were bare, and quite easily the most perfect and beautiful feet the boy had ever seen. Curiosity won over at last, and slowly Asher raised the robe from his face.
There was a person standing there in a simple shift that reached halfway past their knees; their legs and arms were bare. The face was neither male nor female, and the hair on their head was like a tongue of fire dancing above them, never still, and flickering between shades of red, orange, yellow, and gold. And wonder of wonders, two vast, beautiful wings spreading out behind the shoulders – white as new snow and shimmering with gold and silver.
Do not be afraid, a voice said. It was a voice backed by an unfathomable power, and yet it was calming and gentle all at once. Asher realized the voice had come from the glowing person. In that same moment, the person looked directly at the boy with a pair of golden eyes, and smiled warmly.
I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.
Then with a great beat of its wings, the being soared up into the air and disappeared for a moment, only to reappear higher in the sky, backed by a massive host of more like it. They filled the night skies and blotted out the stars with their magnificence. Then they began to weave in and out, their wings nearly brushing each other as they went, moving in an intricate dance, their colors rippling and blending into a breathtaking myriad. Somewhere there was music, the kind you almost hear in the place between sleeping and waking, and it was so beautiful it defied description.
As the multitude of glowing beings kept up their airborne dance, their voices could be heard, weaving with the music as it grew:
Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests!
In and out they went, flowing and shining with all the gloriousness of the place from whence they had come, and still they chanted their praises to God while the music soared with them. After a time, they began to fade from sight, and the golden light went with them until at last the darkness of the night came in once more, and all was as it once had been.
For several minutes, the shepherds stayed still, staring at the heavens, unable to move and unwilling to break the silence should they discover it had been nothing more than a dream. Ishbak was the first, however – his legs, stiff from crouching, finally gave out, and he sat abruptly; his face was streaked with tears. “I…I…”
“Hush,” Phallu broke in. His weathered cheeks were also wet. “We…we have seen a mighty thing this night.”
Asher slowly crawled to his uncle’s side and took the old man’s hands in his own to help him stand. Behind them, Shabbethai rose with the aid of his own staff; he had one hand pressed over his mouth. None of them spoke as they stared at the stars, now dull and dim in comparison to what they had witnessed.
“Was it real?” Ishbak breathed as he found his feet at last.
Phallu turned and put both hands on Asher’s shoulders. “Boy, you talked earlier of a celebration…how did you know of this?”
The poor boy wagged his head. “No, no! I had only a feeling…”
“It was that feeling that heralded their coming,” Shabbethai said quietly. “And they have told us of a great miracle, one that our people have been anticipating for thousands of years.”
“The Messiah is here,” said Ishbak. “The Savior of the World…at last.”
They stood for a moment longer, still staring at the silent sky. Then suddenly Shabbethai struck up a torch and trotted out of the circle.
“Shabbethai, what are you doing?” Phallu called; he seemed almost reproachful, as though a bit upset that the other man would break the peace that had settled there.
The big man paused and waved at the others with his free hand. In the light of the torch, they could see he was smiling genuinely if uncharacteristically. “Come! Let us see to the sheep, and then let us see this miracle which has happened! We are blessed men, my friends – we have been the first told!”
It finally dawned on the other shepherds what Shabbethai meant, and so they hurried to regroup the flock. Everyone had more energy it seemed – even Phallu was scuttling about without his cane, and Ishbak kept laughing to himself. Asher couldn’t remember having ever been so excited before.
The time it took to get the sheep gathered and into the pen not far from the city gates was swift indeed. The beasts, though having been previously frightened, now seemed perfectly willing to be led to an enclosure. Once they were settled and the rickety gate shut, the four men ran to the gates of Bethlehem. There was only a brief delay as the gatekeeper was a bit perturbed by been awoken from a nap by four breathless and very excited shepherds who demanded to be let in, but once they were inside, the men took to their heels and ran.
Asher could never explain how he kept up with the others, and Shabbethai was never able to remember how he knew where to go. In and out of alleys and side streets they went, their booted feet slapping faintly on the cobblestone, and at last they came to a quarter of the city where many of the inns stood. All were obviously full from the busy sounds streaming out of the windows with the comforting light, and there were horses, donkeys, and camels tied up to posts and filling the stables to nearly overflowing.
Shabbethai had slowed to a walk now, and moved past each inn after briefly inspecting it. When he stopped short in front of one particular stable, the others gathered around. The stable had the usual amount of beasts gathered within, and a few extra to show that the inn was well-occupied. However, there was a light towards the back of the squat building, shining from a few oil lamps set into crevices in the stable’s stone walls. As the shepherds stepped into the confines of the stable and moved past the animals blocking the way, they could see a couple sitting near the straw-stuffed manger. One was a girl not far into womanhood, the other a man probably twenty years her senior. The girl’s dark hair was plastered against her face from sweat, and she looked fatigued in every way, but her face glowed with the soft pride of a new mother. The man had an arm around her in a protective and comforting way, and both he and the girl were both looking into the manger.
A baby lay in the feeding box, wrapped in dingy old cloths. Its little face was wrinkled and the skin still a bit pink from its recent arrival into the world, and it had a fine head of soft dark hair. But there was something more about the child, something grand and mysterious that surrounded it like a halo, and the glow of it was warmer than any lamplight.
The couple looked up then, and the girl smiled welcomingly. The man said, “What do you here, good friends?”
At first, the shepherds could say nothing – what could they say? Perhaps this was a mistake; perhaps this was just a poor couple who had asked to stay in a barn while the woman had her baby, and they’d just disturbed them.
“Uncle Phallu.” Asher was tugging at the old man’s sleeve and speaking in a not-so-quiet whisper. “Is this the one?” The old man turned to stifle the boy, but the man at the manger smiled now, too.
“We’ve…we’ve come to see him,” Ishbak said tentatively. “We were told that the…well, that the One Who has been foretold was born this night…”
“Yes.” The girl spoke now, her voice youthful but low. “This is the Messiah. Come closer.”
The shepherds hesitated for only a moment before slowly moving forward and kneeling close beside the manger to look upon the Child. Little Asher put his hands on the edge of the manger and peeked in with wonder fully displayed on his face. He felt a hand rest on his shoulder, and found Phallu leaning over as well. “He is a beautiful child, no?” the old man murmured. “Blessed be Jehovah that I should live to see the Savior of the world this night with my own eyes.”
The boy grinned up at his uncle, and in that moment, the baby’s eyes opened and solemnly regarded the visitors one by one. Phallu chuckled. “Ah, you heard me, little one. Greetings to you, and may you not forget your servants who have come to see you this miraculous night.”
“What’s his name?” Asher asked boldly, glancing up at the apparent mother.
“Jesus,” was the whispered reply from the beaming girl.
Asher felt a tingle rush through him at the very mention of the name. It spoke of a power and majesty that had been forthcoming for thousands of years, but at the same time it sang of peace and love. The shepherd boy reached out and put his finger against the baby’s half-closed fist, and felt the tiny hand curl around it.
“We were told of His arrival by…by a heavenly host,” Ishbak explained to the father. “We were out tending our flock when an enormous light surrounded us – I thought I had died then! But then they were there, shouting the praises of God and telling us the Messiah had been born.” He took a breath, swallowed, and looked back to the baby. “And here He is.”
“The Savior of us all,” Shabbethai whispered.
Asher felt the grip of the Child’s hand tighten on his finger. The baby was looking at him now, His large brown eyes sparkling in the lamplight. Those eyes held all the secrets and wonders of the universe somehow, and the lowly shepherd boy saw this in the briefest of seconds. If Asher had any doubts, they were snuffed instantly in that moment. And then the Child smiled and let out a gurgle, and He was a baby in a manger once more.
The shepherds stayed a while longer, resting in the quiet peace within the stable and speaking very little, for there was nothing else to be said. They were content to simply be silent and marvel.
Before they left, Shabbathai skirted the manger and crouched near the tired girl. He took her hands in his own and said, “May Jehovah bless you for your willingness to serve Him in such a marvelous way.”
“Jehovah has blessed me indeed,” the girl replied with a nod, her wise eyes pooling with tears. She looked to each of the shepherds as she spoke. “You men are blessed as well, for you have been told of this and seen the Messiah first. Do not forget what happened here.”
“Never,” Ishbak stated firmly. “I am a changed man because of it.”
“As we all are,” Phallu agreed.
They bade the couple farewell, and each of the shepherds seemed lighter of heart, if not of step. Ishbak’s melodious voice rose in a song of praise, and the once-surly Shabbethai began dancing in time, sweeping the boy up onto his shoulders as he went. They were all singing now, and the joy of the miracle they had just witnessed soared in their hearts.
Asher managed to look back over his shoulder once before the stable was out of sight; the glow from within spilled softly out into the streets like gold, and to the average passerby, it would be nothing more than a simple stable lit by lamps. But the shepherd boy knew better. The Light within that lowly place was there to stay, and would not go out – not now, not ever. It glittered more fiercely and more beautifully than the stars watching it from above, and someday it would outshine the very sun. That glow shone into Asher’s heart that night, and he let it grow within him for the rest of his life, until he was able to let it shine out from himself in a testament to the most wonderful gift of all, given to mankind the world over.