Being a shepherd is a lonely job. It often falls to the youngest son. It is a job that is looked down upon since we tend to animals that care nothing, give nothing, and respond to the bark of any dog. People see us as lowly vagabonds since the sheep must be constantly moved from pasture to pasture. And it is freezing cold in the desert nights.
You get used to the cold; never to the loneliness. Days go by without seeing anyone or having a conversation with another person. Other shepherds may be near but the sheep need constant supervision so it is almost impossible to find time to seek the companionship of a fellow shepherd. And the noise from the sheep makes it difficult to hear anyone even if they are nearby.
“Rather a human voice raised in anger than the constant bleating of sheep,” my father says.
One spends mindless hours thinking of a hard life with little or even no comforts, waiting for an inevitable death, while lying close to the ground with only the sound and smell of the sheep for company.
Usually it is one monotonous day after another with nothing happening to help you keep track of the passing days. Yet there was one amazing night I must tell you about. As usual I was tending my flock east of the city of Bethlehem. The air was so cold it hurt to breathe. The sky was blacker and the stars brighter than ever before. I pulled my thin cloak as tight as possible to protect me from the cold wind. Then suddenly the stars seemed to whirl and mesh together into one bright light. I ran in fear to escape the blinding light – even disregarding the safety of my flock.
Then a man in beautiful robes came out of the light.
“Fear not,” he said, “a Savior has been born. You will find him wrapped in strips of cloth lying in a stable.”
Just as suddenly it was all gone. We stood; each man waiting for someone to speak, to give meaning to what had happened – wondering if the others had seen and heard the same things. Then someone said we should go to Bethlehem to see this baby. We found the baby in a stable, as we were told. Hundreds of people came out of the houses in Bethlehem, crowding around the manger where the baby lay, while his parents watched. Stables are not pleasant places. There is little protection from the cold and the odor of animal droppings is enough to make you want to go back to the fresh air of the open fields.
Yet, the baby was there lying on straw in an eating trough. Its mother had wrapped it tightly in a wool blanket for warmth so its limbs were restricted. The baby’s father hovered nearby trying to block the wind.
Then there were dozens of people crowded around the stable asking what happened. They were amazed at what we told them. People who barely acknowledged our presence sought us out, listened to us, and treated us as if we were special. It was all anyone talked about for a long time.
Now, as I huddle in my blankets the night is not so cold and frightening. You see, as I looked into that baby’s eyes – though nothing had changed – everything was different. A new light had come into the world. I would not be surprised if thousands of years from now men still talk about what happened on that starry, starry night.