I’m an old man now. Probably don’t have many more days to live on this good earth. But a good earth it’s been, and a good life. Simple. Hard. But good. I wish I could tell you that I’ve resolved all the questions I’ve carried with me through my life, but that I cannot do. I still have questions. Many. About life, about God, about the baby I was so privileged to be among the first to see.
Does that surprise you? You know my story well. How blessed I was, you no doubt think, to be the first, the very first(!) to visit the holy couple and the holy child lying in the manger. And yes, blessed I was, to be sure. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t had my questions down through the years.
I was so young on that magical, mystical night. Just a young man learning shepherd life from my father and uncle and a few others from our small village. I didn’t expect much from my life. We had always been poor, and life had always been harsh. I just assumed it would be that way for me as well. Scraping by. Always looked down on by those better positioned in life. Some even said that if one of us shepherds should fall into a pit, no one should feel obligated to rescue us because we were simply worthless.
But I didn’t let all that bother me—at least not most of the time. I wasn’t unhappy. I wasn’t particularly happy either. I would live and die a shepherd, and that was that. I did wonder about God sometimes out there under the stars. Did God care about me? Did God look at us shepherds as those around us looked at us? Who knew? I listened to my mother and my father tell the old, old stories about God and God’s people who had lived long before us. About Abraham and Moses. About King David who had started life as a shepherd and ended up the greatest of all kings. About prophets who told of a wondrous day yet to come when a Son of David would be born, a Messiah who would bring peace and joy for all people on earth, even for shepherds. “Oh yeah! Tell me another one,” I used to mutter to myself, but of course I never said that aloud, as my parents would have been mortified and shocked.
Anyway, I remember that on that special night on the hillside my uncle began to play a gentle melody on his reed pipe, and I was finding it hard to stay awake. But suddenly our dark sky erupted. Our night world became as bright as a sunny noonday. No, considerably brighter. And a strange and brilliant heavenly creature was singing to us about a baby born in nearby Bethlehem, a baby who was our Messiah, a Savior for us and for all people. “Go and see for yourself,” the angelic being told us. “You’ll find this Savior-baby lying in a manger in Bethlehem.” Messiah in a manger? Where we shepherds put our babies? Was he serious?
But no chance to ask any questions, for just then a whole host of angels burst on the scene in a glorious hymn of praise: “Glory to God in the highest Heaven! Peace, goodwill among people.”* We felt so honored! A heavenly choir just for us. And the heavenly being had addressed us shepherds as though we had some dignity. Had invited us shepherds to be witnesses to this amazing event! Needless to say, we quickly appointed one of us to stay with the sheep, and the rest of us went as fast as we could to Bethlehem to find this precious child.
A truly strange and wondrous night it was. I re-lived it over and over again as that baby grew into manhood. I began to hear exciting things. Tales of blind people receiving their sight. Of the deaf suddenly hearing again. Yes! I thought. This really is our Messiah, our King. The One who will level the mountains of injustice and lift up those of us who are lowly and poor. I made sure I was part of that jubilant crowd that welcomed him as he rode on that donkey into Jerusalem. This was it! Our time! Our King! Memories of that Bethlehem night resonated in every “Alleluia!” that I shouted with the others along the way.
But almost the next thing I knew, I found myself staring at our King hanging on a cross like a common criminal. How could this be?! What had gone so wrong? Had that wondrous night, that angel visitation been just some cruel joke? There on that cross hung all our dreams and all our hopes. Dashed. Gone. I bowed in utter bewilderment and sorrow.
In the weeks and months after that God-forsaken day, it’s true, I did hear strange tales of an empty tomb and hints that the one crucified had been seen alive by a number of people. But I never myself saw him again, so I didn’t really know just what to think.
But in these later years, I have been pondering over and over again the passage from our sacred writings which has always perplexed and bothered me. The passage about Messiah being “stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.” About Messiah being “wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities.” And I have begun to wonder. Is it just possible that something profound was happening on that cross? Had our God, in all the horror of that day, somehow been at work to bring about the promise the angels had sung to us shepherds?
It’s all a bit too deep for me, and I don’t know how to put it all together. My shepherd’s hut is crammed with all my thoughts and all my questions, and sometimes there seems little room for faith and trust. But I do continue to ponder and try to trust in my own simple way. Trust that somehow God was at work on that cross. Trust that God will someday, somehow, complete what I saw begun so long ago in that Bethlehem stable. How, I do not know. But every now and then, sometimes even in the darkest of nights, when trust can be so elusive, I do believe I hear a faint echo of that haunting angel song, and I find myself singing along with the angels, “Glory to God in the highest Heaven! Peace, goodwill among people!”
*alternative reading (NRSV)