I shiver in the chill of the night and pull my cloak tighter around my shoulders. The darkness is still and calm around me, with only the rustling of the sheep and the occasional bleat to punctuate the silence. Every once in a while the low sound of a voice wafts over from the conversation of the other shepherds. I sit separate from them. An outcast among outcasts. The only woman in the group. I am tolerated, if not accepted, because of the presence of my brother, Simon.
I rub my hands together, calloused skin brushing against calloused skin, hoping to create enough warmth to stop my shivering. The night stretches ahead of us, interminable. I shiver again. Not just because of the cold, but because of the night. I hate the night. I hate the memories that come creeping in along with the evening shadows. I hate the darkness and all of its unknowns, all that it keeps hidden. I know too well what kind of evil hides in the darkness.
I shake my head, trying to shake off the memories that flood in unbidden. It doesn’t work. It rarely does, in the darkness of the night. This is hardly a surprise. It was in the darkness of the night that my life was shattered. And so in each darkness, it seems to shatter again.
My growling stomach breaks the silence and stops the downward cycle of my thoughts. I’m so hungry. Bethlehem. I sigh to myself. The name of the town we live outside of means House of Bread. I’m sure our ancestors who named it wanted to remind themselves and all their descendents of Yahweh’s goodness, of his provisions for his people. As shepherds, do we experience this? Hardly. We are looked down upon, scorned, left to survive on our own. Any attempt we make to improve our lives or to step out of our poverty will only see us stomped back down by those who consider themselves better than us. Anything we make or find cannot even be sold for profit because the religious leaders have declared that it must have been stolen.
So even living in the hills surrounding this House of Bread, I go to bed most nights with an empty stomach.
I think back to my childhood, back before the sheep, before the brokenness, before The Night. My childhood was a typical one, a happy one, I think. My parents told us the stories of Yahweh and our people. Simon and I were raised on the stories of God’s faithfulness, of God coming to save his people again and again and again.
God’s people are enslaved in Egypt? God sends Moses and the plagues to free them. God’s people are being chased down by the Egyptian army? Through Moses, God parts the Red Sea and they walk through. God’s people are in the desert with nothing to eat? God provides them with manna to eat.
And now, God’s people, under the thumb of the Romans. What will God do? When will God act?
And am I still a part of God’s people? What about me? Will God act on my behalf? On Simon’s? Simon did nothing wrong except defend me, and now we live as outcasts to our people. It seems Yahweh has forgotten his people.
I shake my head in another attempt to dispel the dark thoughts. They seem to be my constant companion in the darkness. Even in sleep, they come and plague me.
Tonight is going to be a long night.
Just as my head is finally nodding and I am drifting off into sleep, it’s daylight. No, not daylight. And yet the night sky is filled with a dazzling light, a terrifying light. Even as I’m still trying to figure out what is happening, I hear Simon call my name, my older brother always coming to my defence. I reach out blindly, grasping for him, hoping to find something solid and known to hold on to.
And then the voice speaks out of the brightness.
“Don’t be afraid!” That is a ridiculous command, and yet I am immediately less afraid. As the voice continues, a shape starts to take form amidst the light… is this an angel speaking to us? “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Saviour – yes, the Messiah, the Lord – has been born today in Bethlehem, in the town of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: you will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”
My mind is spinning with this news, but there is no time to think about it and understand because suddenly the whole sky is filled with angels. They are singing the most beautiful song, its harmonies ringing through the sky, through the whole celestial sphere, resonating inside me.
Suddenly the lights disappear, the angels gone, their song ringing in our ears. The world is black around us again, and I can’t see, my eyes needing to adjust to the darkness. A voice I recognize as my brother’s speaks out into this darkness. “I’m going. Let’s go to see this thing that has happened!” If Simon is going, then I know I will inevitably end up going too. Other voices speak out their agreement, and we’re on our way in mere seconds. Simon sounded so sure when he declared his intention to visit this newborn baby. I do not share his certainty. Not that this baby has been born – it seems hard to deny the angels. But I have no conviction that we’ll be welcome. No certainty that the arrival of this baby, if he is indeed the Messiah, which it seems he must be if angels are declaring it so – no certainty that this baby will change anything. Especially for us – shepherds. Outcasts. Especially for me. Broken.
The others speak excitedly as we walk. I hardly pay attention, my mind turning my thoughts over and over and over.
Finally I can bear my own thoughts no longer and dash around the others to catch up to Simon who is leading the way at the front.
“Simon,” I blurt out, and then pause to try to catch my breath from the running. He doesn’t slow down. I look at him as he continues to walk, his pace fast enough and his legs long enough that I am nearly jogging to keep up. I can see his face in the starlight well enough to recognize the determined set of his jaw. But the excitement glinting in his eyes that is softening his resolute expression reminds me of the boy he once was.
He doesn’t stop, so I ask my questions as I hurry along beside him. We’re on the last uphill section into town, and my questions must be asked now or they will not be answered before we enter. “Simon. Why us? Why did the angels give us this news? What is Yahweh doing? We’re nobody. We’re shepherds. They’re not going to let us see this baby. They’re going to send us away!”
He doesn’t slow down even to answer me. “I don’t know. I don’t know why us, I just know that we have been chosen! I’m not going to question it, I’m just going to believe it! And if we have been chosen for this news… they’ll let us see, Deborah. They’ll let us see.”
He seems so sure. I’m not even sure who the “they” is that we’re referring to. The… the baby’s parents, I suppose. This seems so backwards. My head spins. How is the Messiah here, but as a baby? How is this going to fulfill Yahweh’s plans?
And then suddenly we find the place and the others are barging in and I can’t see what’s happening but I’m just worried we’re going to be laughed out of the place or driven out by someone enraged that shepherds would dare insert themselves here. I still can’t see, but suddenly I notice the smell. It smells like us, like me. Like animals. Maybe we won’t be laughed out of here. And then the men in front of me finally make way and I can see, and it is just as the angel told us. The baby, wrapped in strips of cloth. Lying in a manger. His mother kneeling beside him. She is looking at us not with the alarm that I would expect, but with a serene calmness, and an almost expectant look about her. Like of course a group of shepherds would welcome themselves into this room where she has given birth and is contemplating her newborn.
Her eyes pass over the group of us, and she makes eye contact with me. Now her expression changes a little – startled, perhaps, to see me in this group of me. She considers me momentarily, and then gestures toward her little newborn, holding my eyes and clearly speaking to me and not the men surrounding me. “Would you like to hold him?”
Would I like to hold him. This baby, the messiah we have longed for as a people for centuries. Would I like to hold him, an outcast, a woman who by the rights of Jewish law should have been stoned to death for the acts committed against me, to me.
I wait for this woman to realize what she is suggesting and rescind her offer. But she does not.
This baby is my complete opposite. Innocent and new, while I have been broken by the world. If he is indeed the Messiah, he is the most important person in our people, while I am no one, worse than an outcast. This baby represents all that has been stolen from my life – the chance for my own family, a loving husband, the gift of children to laugh with and love. It’s that thought that stops me short. If I will never have my own child to hold, then I will hold this one for a moment and experience a baby filling my arms for the few minutes that it can happen.
The woman is still waiting, patiently. She does not seem concerned that her simple question is taking me a long moment to think through. I look up at her again finally and simply nod, barely able to swallow past the lump that has lodged in my throat.
She gently picks up the newborn from where he lays, sleeping. Then carefully she rises from her knees to her feet. I step forward from the doorway where I have been hovering since entering, taking step after step forward as if in a dream. We stand facing each other on either side of the manger, and she leans forward, putting her newborn in my arms. She looks into his face, a look filled with such a tender love that the lump in my throat threatens to overwhelm me, and I rapidly blink back tears.
A man comes to her side – her husband, maybe, judging by the tender way he approaches, touching her arm. “Mary, come and sit again.”
She does not immediately do so, but looks at me still. “Come and sit by me,” she says gently. I step around the manger, taking slow and careful steps, mindful of the baby in my arms. Her hands guide me as I kneel, then take a seat on some blankets laid out. She sits next to me, watching the other shepherds who are watching us.
Now sitting down, I can finally turn my attention to the baby in my arms. A warmth permeates through the cloth wrapped around the baby, warming me. I lean down and inhale. His sweet baby smell fills me with an indescribable ache. For all that I have longed for and lost. For a delight in his innocence.
I think again of the angel’s words. This is the promised Messiah? This is the one Isaiah wrote about saying, “The virgin will conceive. She will give birth to a son and will call him, Emmanuel, which means God with us”?
This promised Messiah has not changed anything. My heart is still shattered. My reputation still in tatters. My life still a story of brokenness that this baby in my arms cannot change.
The baby wrinkles his nose and lets out a sigh.
I cannot believe this baby matters the way that we thought he would, but I also do not want to give him back to his mother. I hold him close, barely daring to breathe in case it wakes him.
Eventually there are rustling sounds around me, and I see some of the men get up from their positions kneeling around. I stay still. The sounds continue, men beginning to head out. I remain still, staring at the baby. A hand touches my shoulder, and I hear Simon’s voice, low and gentle. “Deborah.”
I do not want to leave. I snuggle the baby closer to my chest. This baby, who changes nothing. And yet I can’t hand him back over to his mother, the woman named Mary.
Why can’t I give up this baby?
The baby lets out a sudden cry. My heart jumps in alarm. I look quickly to Mary, but she seems unconcerned. Babies cry all the time, I suppose. But this baby is special! He shouldn’t be crying!
It is a small spark of realization, like the first light of dawn piercing the darkness. But the realization grows and grows until it is the light of the sun, gleaming down, a light that bathes me in its glory. This baby doesn’t change anything? No, my circumstances remain the same. This baby doesn’t wipe away my past like the wind blowing away footprints left in the dust. He doesn’t heal my wounds or take away my brokenness. He doesn’t make it all okay.
But he’s here with me in the brokenness.
Yahweh, the God of glory and holiness. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The God so holy that meeting with him made Moses’ face shine with radiance. God is here with me. In my brokenness. God with us, Emmanuel. God, taking on human form, able to cry himself, to feel the pain and brokenness of our world.
I almost can’t take in a breath at the wonder of this realization. I look up and catch Mary’s eye and I realize she understands this too. That has been the look of wonder and peace in her eyes, the understanding at a dirty group of shepherds bursting in on her new family mere hours after labour.
Simon speaks my name again, more insistently this time. But Mary seems unconcerned with how much time I have taken, how I am still holding her baby.
I rise to my knees slowly, tenderly, careful not to jostle the sleeping newborn in my arms. I lean toward Mary and put the baby back into her arms. Our eyes meet again. And that spark passes between us again. No words are needed for this communication; our hearts recognize the truth of the gift that we have received.
I leave without breaking the silence. The other shepherds are ahead of us, nearly skipping along in their joy. I can hear them talking excitedly about telling others, sharing this news that God seems somehow to have chosen us, lowly shepherds, to receive first.
Simon walks more sedately beside me, a companion in my silence.
My mind thinks back over all that has happened tonight. I still do not understand, but keep returning to this thought: God has come to be with me in my brokenness.
We walk along, and my mind turns this over and over and over.
“Emmanuel,” I whisper to myself, still in awe.
And I hear Simon’s whispered response, equally awe-filled: “God with us.”