In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” (Luke 2:8-10 NRSV)
Afterward I had to wonder: Why us? We were simple folk, the lowest of the low, looked down upon by all. We were also mistrusted; too many of us were no better than bandits.
I cannot even begin to tell you what it was like—this great, glowing specter. And the light that shone over us was unearthly, unlike anything we’d seen before. No wonder we were scared, especially Elias, the youngest among us, who fell on his face crying for his mother. The strange thing was the sheep: it didn’t bother them; they just went on grazing as though nothing out of the ordinary was happening.
Then the apparition spoke, but it wasn’t like ordinary speech. This was something that we heard in our heads: “Fear not!” “I bring you good news of great joy!” “The Messiah is born in Bethlehem.” It gave directions for finding the child. Then, suddenly, there was a great display of light in the heaven. We’d seen meteor showers often enough, but this was the wildest shower you’ve ever seen, and I heard in my head this triumph song: “Glory to God on high and peace to people on earth.”
Then, as suddenly as it had started, it was all over and we were looking at each other, thunderstruck. As one, we rose to our feet and, heedless of the wellbeing of the sheep, we hastened through the fields to Bethlehem – The House of Bread – and there it was: mother, father, and a tiny baby, barely a few hours old. It wasn’t much of a place to have a baby, just a simple cave for sheltering animals in the wintertime.
There was something about this little family that was compelling. The father was nervous, as might have been expected. The mother was graciously serene. But it was the child that drew us. There was something in him that was beyond calm, something that made us drop to our knees in wonder and adoration. I held out my arms and the mother gently and proudly laid him in them and I looked into his face. “What’s his name?” I whispered. “Jesus,” she replied. Then she asked, “And why, good people, have you come here?” So I told her about the angels – for by now I knew they were angels – and their promises, and she listened carefully. We stayed a while, just looking at the baby, and holding him, and rocking him gently as we would our lambs. When we finally departed reluctantly to care for the sheep, I knew that my life had changed forever.
What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
if I were a wise man, I would do my part;
yet what I can I give him – give my heart.
(Carol: In the Bleak Midwinter)