It was cold, the night it happened. A breathless chill hung low over the fields like a choking mist, colder than she’d ever known. She could so easily have stayed alone in their little home, wrapped in warm goatskin by a dying fire, but she liked to follow him up the gentle slopes and sit with him while he watched errant sheep and saw the night through with the others. Her father was a quiet bear of a man who thought nothing of following a lamb into an underground cave or braving a thorny thicket to save a ewe in distress. She liked to watch him and sometimes he allowed her to help with the rounding up and getting the sheep safely into the fold.
And then there was Jacob.
Most of all, there was Jacob.
She would hang back behind her father, waiting for the first glimpse of him, searching out his brown eyes that were pools of sparkle and his dark hair which fell in unruly waves around a face that she wanted to drown in.
He never noticed her, though. She was just Joshua’s daughter, a shy ghost who lingered on the hills as they went about their work. She was the one to be pitied, the one who had lost her mother to a great sickness just the previous year.
Tonight, the fields were quiet and the sheep compliant as they were folded into their pen. Joss stayed out with her, as usual. He followed her everywhere she went like a lost puppy and she liked his company. He was half grown now, no longer a playful lamb with his buckling legs but a gambolling teen with legs that were strong and quick and steady, though occasionally still inclined to slip from under him in the most comical ways. She’d named him after her father because he made her feel safe.
She leaned on the gatepost with Joss nudging her leg, and listened to the banter, content to while away the hours like this, watching her father with admiration and Jacob with longing.
Much later they sat by the fire and ate great hunks of bread she had baked earlier, with cups of sweet wine. She liked the feeling of the wine in her stomach and laughed at jokes she didn’t understand.
She was dozy, lulled towards sleep by the quiet of the night and the crackling and snapping of the fire. It was a silent night, a night suspended in stars and wrapped in unearthly mist, a night of wishing and hoping and grieving. She lay on her back, her woollen cloak gathered tight around her, Joss a warm presence beside her, occasionally shuddering with a snore that rumbled through her. She liked to think of him as a kindred spirit, another motherless lost soul in a great big hostile world.
She lay and stared up at the arch of the heavens, thinking about how small she was, a speck of dust under a great expanse, a nothing in the nothingness. The mist was clearing, burned away by a million stars that seemed brighter than usual, and she lay mesmerised. She was too aware of Jacob, slumped on the ground opposite her, holding his hands out to the fire then rubbing them as if to generate more heat. Her father and the other shepherd were sat silent and watchful, scanning the hills for lost sheep and predatory wolves.
A strange light seemed to birth in the heavens, encircling them as if dawn was beginning its morning song, painting its expansive streaks across the sky too early. She raised herself on her elbows and Joss stirred. Shhh, she soothed him, all is well. She sat up and peered at the sky, shielding her eyes from the expanding light. Was it morning? Had she slept without knowing it?
Her father stood with face upturned, a frown cutting through his forehead. Jacob was stumbling to his feet, running his hand through his hair, eyes widened. She stood too, grabbing hold of one of the crooks as if to defend herself from… from what?
Unworldly colours chased the light through the edges of the sky, like sunrise and dawn all at once, and the heavens rumbled like a giant storm was approaching.
‘Strange weather,’ the other shepherd murmured, and no one replied.
She was afraid. Her heart beat faster, pulsating through her veins, galloping through the wilds of her mind. The light seemed to drum in time with it, gaining in brilliance, radiating in energy until they could no longer look and fell to the ground on their knees, covering their eyes. She wanted to peek out between her fingers, but the light seared at her face and her hands. Was this the end? Was this death? Would she join her mother in the place of the dead? Part of her yearned for that and her stomach rolled with the longing.
It was like daylight, now, but a daylight of extremes, a daylight of impossible radiance where no shadows could hide. The sheep mewed in their pen and foxes howled on the hills. Joss pressed into her side, his body quivering against her, and she shivered too, bowed on her knees with fear running through her veins, and the edge of something else too, a tremble of anticipation that shuddered through her body. Did she dare look?
The light was a thousand million suns, it was a painting of the most glorious dawn lit up in impossible luminosity. She wanted to drink it in and sink into it all at once. Near her Jacob was quaking and she reached out her own shaking hand and touched his shoulder.
Terror stalked them and they waited.
The voice was like rushing waters, like oceans of waves all rising up and crashing to shore at once, like the pealing of a thousand bells. It cut through the exultant skies and through her dread. ‘Don’t be afraid.’
How could she not be afraid?
‘I bring you great joy.’
She thrilled to the voice and searched for the source, for this unexplainable light that threw her into such turmoil. A being like a man took shape, but more than a man. She could find no words to describe him and none to contain him. He was an angel, she knew that, but he surpassed all her dreams of what angels should be.
‘This news will bring great joy to all people. Today, in David’s town, a Saviour has been born to you. He is your Messiah, your Lord. This will be a sign to you—go, and you will find a baby, wrapped in cloths and laid in a manger.’
The uncanny light blazed louder through the expanse and she shook with exhilaration. She gazed to the heavens and saw them there, the ethereal splendour taking form as a million angels took their places, uncountable myriads of them, suspended in divine luminescence. And the very heavens were singing a song that surged through her soul and turned her legs to water so she could no longer kneel. She fell facedown as the words rushed through the air. ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to all on whom his favour rests.’
The song was both ancient and brand new, it was radiant and alluring, it was a torrent of praise she wanted to plunge into. She never wanted it to end.
When the light began to fade, she felt a wave of something like homesickness, a longing for something she’d never known before. The music dissolved into silence and the starry night pressed in on them again. They lay out on the ground, overcome.
Her father was first to speak. ‘We must go. We must go to Bethlehem and see this… this baby.’
She nodded. No more words were needed. The shepherds checked the gate around the fold and she followed them as they set off down the hillside, Joss trotting beside her, anticipation skipping through her and around her like a child dancing through the rain. Somehow they knew the way, as if an unknown force was drawing them through the town and towards a place where cattle lowed in a rough-hewn cave under a house. Was this baby—this Messiah—not born in state, in a palace, or at least one of the opulent homes on the hill?
But they were dragged forward and her father led them on and through a door that barely hung on its hinges and creaked through the silence. Inside it was dark, dank and heavy with animal stench, but the atmosphere was leaden with something more, too.
She followed behind, hanging back, as the shepherds approached a manger that had become a makeshift crib and a couple who sat on the mud-packed floor. The woman looked weary but somehow lit from within and the man’s face was carved with deep lines of worry, or maybe exhaustion. The baby lay in the manger, just as the angel said.
She edged closer, Joss at her feet, and it was as if her father and Jacob and all the other things at the centre of her world were shifted sideways, as if liquid gold dashed through her bones until she was teetering on the edge of a cliff of the great unknown. She fell to her knees, for the second time that night.
He was just a baby, a newborn, hands curling and uncurling, a tiny mewl escaping his mouth. But his dark eyes drew her in and sucked out her breath, and she hung there in the expectant silence with the others. The mother smiled.
She didn’t know how long they stayed like that, immobile, a double imprint of longing and peace marking their souls. Eventually, her father got to his feet and led them out, as silently as they had entered, and they stared at one another, the magnitude of it hanging between them. ‘We must tell everyone,’ her father said. ‘We must tell them about this child, about how an angel spoke to us of him and he was there, just as the angel said.’
It was as if their feet caught fire as they began to walk and then run through the town to tell their neighbours and their friends, and all who heard caught the fire, amazed at what they said.
She thought about her mother, how much she’d have loved what happened to them tonight, and then she thought about the baby’s mother and the tired smile that lit up her eyes. She knew the mother would treasure all these things and ponder them in her heart, and she knew she would, too. She knew she’d never forget the night when angels ignited the skies and she met a baby with curling hands and eyes like eternity."The song was both ancient and brand new, it was radiant and alluring, it was a torrent of praise she wanted to plunge into. She never wanted it to end." A Winter's Tale: A Story for Christmas. Click To Tweet
While shepherds watched their flocks by night
all bitten with cold and tired of the daily grind
all wearied with worry and waiting for more
all scattered over hills of despair,
draped in the dark of unknowing
While shepherds watched their flocks by night
all anxious with fear and poverty’s travail
all huddled in byres and wishing by fires
all bowed under the weight of the world,
draped in the night of unknowing
The angel of the Lord came down
and glory exploded the skies
and glory tore into their lives
and glory blazed through their cries
Fear not, said he
and they melted under dread; and expectancy
they fell to the ground and
sunk into the sound,
their years of hearts in hiding
splintered in unforeseen tidings
of great joy and peace on earth
While shepherds watched their flocks by night
history was torn and hope was born
songs of glory hymned an ancient story
a symphony of peace began and never ceased.
This story and poem are taken from my new anthology, Treasure in Dark Places: Stories and poems of hope in the hurting.