(Continuation of story begun in “Missing the Signs.”)
I was breathless, panting, and had to stop and bend over to relieve the stitch in my side. How the old man managed to keep running was beyond me. I had almost lost sight of him, when I forced myself to straighten up and begin running again. We arrived at the outskirts of Bethlehem, and I was hoping against hope that wherever we were going in this little God-forsaken town (or so I thought), was on this side of town. No such luck.
All the while, as I ran along, trying to keep up with the old man, I heard him shouting, “Come and see! Come and see! Wake up and come to the stable at Ezra’s Inn!” I wanted to tell him to keep his voice down, but even if he had heard me, I doubted he would have softened his voice, which was at a pitch loud enough to wake the dead.
Finally, he started to slow down, and then, almost timidly, he turned his head back to me and placed his hand over his mouth, a signal that I should be quiet.” I would have burst out laughing, if the look on his face had not been so serious. He was my elder, after all, and he clearly meant business. So I obediently stepped up softly behind him and stopped to peer into a stable. What one would expect to see in the stable of a traveler’s inn was there, and they were all curiously silent. No “baa” from the sheep, nor lowing from the cattle, not even an impatient “hee-haw” from the two or three donkeys tethered to a bar within reach of a bale of hay.
Then, I saw what I must have been brought to this place to see; and it was most definitely a strange sight indeed. Nathanael silently signaled to a middle-aged man and a young woman, seated by a manger trough, and staring into it with a mixture of love, awe, and exhaustion in their eyes. At Nathanael’s signal, the man, and then the young woman – a girl, really – looked up, and nodded at him, as he pushed me ahead closer to the center of their focus. The first thing I saw was what looked like a large cocoon squirming, and visible slightly above the top of the manger, nestled in a pile of straw. A closer look revealed to me that the cocoon was really a swaddled new-born baby. Why on earth was this baby lying on a bed of straw, and short of that, what was so special about another mouth to feed? If the parents could not afford a room at the inn, what made them think they could afford to raise and feed a child adequately?
The child’s mother quickly moved her focus from me to the infant, as it began to squirm, open its eyes, and then yawn. There was a glow in the mother’s and father’s eyes, as they looked down with unfathomable love at their child, which I was soon to learn was a baby boy. Then I realized that the glow came not from the boy’s parents, but from the face of the child. The light in their eyes was reflective of the light radiating from the infant himself. Without being aware of it, I fell to my knees, and then felt next to me the soft coat of a donkey on my right, and the woolly coat of a young sheep on my left. Looking down at the sheep, I saw around his head and neck the very wounds I had tended to after disentangling him from the thorny fence of our pasture. A soft and tender “baa” sounded from him as I heard the donkey sigh – both sounds, I would swear, of wonder. Even more amazing, the baby wriggled inside the bands of cloth that held him snug and warm, and smiled. For all the years before the awful events of a certain passover week, as I repeatedly told this story, many of the people who heard it would laugh, shaking their heads, saying, “It was only gas.” But I would smile back, and assure them it was indeed a smile. Some chose to believe me, and asked for more of my story, others just walked away, laughing, and telling their friends about the idiot old shepherd telling tall tales to anyone who will listen.
I knew that I was kneeling on holy ground. These were no ordinary parents, and more so, before me, holding my attention, was an extraordinary being. A holy presence. A baby who would grow to change the world irrevocably, and I was here to see him as he lifted up his countenance upon me and flooded my soul with peace. I did not understand any of it, but I knew that I did not want to leave this stable. As the mother reached in and lifted up her baby, Nathanael pulled me away, indicating it was time to leave. I thought that leaving would be hard, that all the warmth I felt inside would disappear as soon as I left the little one’s side. But with insistence, Nathanael pulled me out to give the young family their well-deserved privacy. To my surprise, as I moved away from the stable and the inn, no matter how far from the child I got, the comfort and joy inside of me remained.
Finally, Nathanael stopped walking. Seeing a well near the center of town, he stopped for a drink, and then sat on the edge of the wall of stone that surrounded it. At last, he answered my questions. Had I not been rescuing a sheep from a thicket of thorns, I would have known the answers, but I had missed all the signs that would have sent me running with the rest of the shepherds to witness the miracle with them. Here are the signs I missed, and the unexpected answers to my questions:
“While you were off on your duties, we were resting in the field, keeping watch over the flocks. Without warning, an angel of God appeared, and the glory of God shown all around us. We were all frightened to death, as you can imagine. But then the angel said, ‘Don’t be afraid! I’ve come to bring you good news of great joy, and it is news for all the people of the world. To all of you has been born this very day, in the city of David, a Savior, who is our Messiah. To prove this to you, I will give you a sign: you will find there a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.’
“Then, suddenly, a huge throng of angels appeared with him and started singing and saying, ‘Glory to God in the heavenly heights, and peace to all men and women on earth who please God.’
“The angels disappeared, and we knew that we had to get to Bethlehem to see if what we had been told was true. We ran as fast as we could, and found a stable, over which shone the huge star we have seen day and night. We went inside the stable, and there we saw all the signs, exactly as the angel had told us. Just think! Our salvation, our rescue from oppression has arrived! All of us who saw this miracle are telling everyone we see. Now you have seen it too, you can tell the story. Praise God from whom all blessings flow! Glory to God in the highest heaven!”
And now I have told it to you. My life has never been the same. I never tend a sheep or a lamb without remembering that glorious morning. I rise each morning, and lie down each night with gratitude for what was revealed to me in that stable. Even though I missed the signs, the miracle of the Messiah’s birth was not withheld from me. You have heard and read my story. Go for yourself and meet the Messiah, and then, go, and tell it on the mountain – over the hills and everywhere – that Jesus Christ is born!
I hope and pray that all of you have a blessed and merry Christmas, and in joy, remember to offer your gratitude to God for all the blessings of the abundance of enough. . .