It was an unusually cool night in the fields. I pulled my cloak tighter around me as I walked along, following the path of the lamb that had strayed from my flock. I knew exactly where he’d gone, and I knew it wouldn’t be long before he would start to panic, even though he’d wandered to this same spot a dozen times before.
“Stupid lamb,” I sighed, clambering up a rock and peering over the edge. I could hear his bleating before I saw him. I heaved myself over the rock and landed with a soft thud in the dry grass.
“Come on, you,” I prodded him gently with my staff, and if one could see relief in a sheep’s face, this was it. I heaved him up over my shoulders and, with ease, for I’d done it before, found my footing on the rocks and climbed back over them.
He let out a soft bleat of thanks once we’d got back to the rest of the flock, and I let him down, certain he wouldn’t wander off again this night.
“Maybe we should just move them all over there?” My friend, and fellow shepherd, Jacob, asked.
I shook my head. “We’ll only be here a little while longer. He doesn’t wander far. I just expect it of him. He runs off, and I go get him. I don’t mind.” I watched as the little lamb frolicked back into the herd. I shrugged. I really didn’t mind. If he was prone to wander off in a new direction every time, it might get a little more irritating, but, it was part of the job, being a shepherd.
Jacob shook his head at me and turned to survey the rest of the flock.
I sat down beside the fire and warmed my hands. “It’s cold tonight. That’s strange.”
“I was thinking that too. The fire should keep the coyotes away though, we can get some rest.”
I nodded, my thoughts far away from the flock, as I thought of my family, miles away. I was sure that my sister was sharing the wool blanket with my mother on this night, adding whatever warmth she could to the old, frail body that housed my mother’s illness. It was only a matter of time before Andrew, my brother, came from town with the news of her passing. I dreaded it. I wanted to be there, yet I wanted to be here. I didn’t want to watch her die, but I didn’t want to miss her last moments either. She, and Andrew, had insisted that I tend to the sheep, that I go about my normal duties. We couldn’t afford for me to just sit around and wait for her to die. As I’d left the last time, she’d had such hope in her eyes, even as the rest of her body betrayed her.
“Go, Mattias. Go herd your father’s sheep,” her voice had croaked. “And remember, keep those eyes open. He is coming. He is coming for me first, and then He is coming for you. Messiah is coming. Praise be to the God of our ancestors. It won’t be long now.”
Mama’s hope was founded in Him, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I wasn’t sure exactly why she held so tightly to beliefs that were so old, and prophesies that had seemed outdated and unfulfilled. But she swore up and down that they were true, and she taught us those stories from the time we could form words with our little lips.
Beside me, Jacob settled down for the night, one hand across his chest, grasping the sling shot over his shoulder. I looked quickly away from him and scanned the darkness in front of us.
“Please come soon,” I whispered, watching my breath curl in the moon and fire-lit air. “If you are coming, do it soon.”
I was envious of my mother’s hope. Even though she lay dying, in physical agony, she had clung so tightly to this hope. A king was coming for us. He would come, and everything would change. She dreamed of a better life for us, but I couldn’t imagine what anyone could do to change our situation. Nothing would bring back my father, he’d been gone for a year–which was why she was adamant that I continue to tend his sheep–we had to respect his life’s work. My brother stayed home and worked the fields, and Abigail tended to Mother, which was an all-encompassing job. Cleaning sheets of waste and vomit, sometimes forcing broth into her… I suppose it was much better to be out here, in spite of the monotony and the stench of the sheep.
I longed for what my mother had taught us to be true. There had to be something more than this. There had to be redemption somewhere. We had worked for years to pay off our small land, and my father’s herd, and for what? To continue to work for it so that we could survive. It wasn’t that I expected everything to just change, for us to gain wealth and fame, but… this hope that my mother had… I needed it. I was confident that without that hope, she would have passed much earlier, and in some ways, I cursed it; she shouldn’t have suffered as long. But if you looked into her eyes, you saw not a woman suffering, but a woman at peace with where her God had brought her.
It amazed me, and I wanted to experience that same kind of peace.
Yawning, I stretched out my legs and laid my head back. I could hear the sounds of the animals settling in for the night, so I closed my eyes and tried to sleep, with a hand clenched around my sling shot.
“Mattias! Wake up! Mattias!” Jacob was shaking me awake, his voice urgent.
“What? What is it?”
“Something’s out there!” He pointed frantically. I wiped the sleep from my eyes and sat up, waiting for my vision to focus. Jacob was loading his sling shot, ready for a fight.
“Is it a coyote?” I asked.
“I can’t tell. I just heard something. Get ready.”
I stood up and pulled at my own sling shot, and as I was searching my pockets for a stone, I froze. The cool dark of night was suddenly erased by an intense warmth and blinding light as a figure climbed the hill to where we had slept, minutes before.
“What’s going on?” Jacob whispered.
I couldn’t speak. I felt like my heart was being seized, and heat spread through all of my limbs.
“Do not be afraid,” the figure said in a voice louder than humanly possible.
I searched, but I couldn’t recognize features, only the shape of a body, but the voice– it seemed to command heaven and earth. The sheep were, unbelievably, still asleep, none of them moving or aware of what was going on.
“I bring you good news, of great joy that will be for all people!”
It was Him. I knew it. He had come. My insides began to burn like fire, and my throat closed up. I felt a tingling sensation creep through my cheeks and to my eyes.
“Today in the town of David, a savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”
I fell to my knees, my jaw hanging open as the voice continued to reverberate around the hillside.
“This will be a sign to you: you will find a baby, wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
I wouldn’t have thought there could be any more light than there already was– he was brighter than the sun, and standing only a few feet from us, but suddenly it was as though the entire earth had been lit, and thousands of figures filled our eyes. Before I knew what was happening, I was face-first in the dirt, crying out with the chorus of angelic voices, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to men on whom His favor rests!”
She was right. My mother had been right. If this was really happening, and there was no time to question it, the Messiah was here, and everything was going to change.
As quickly as they had torn through the darkness with light like I’d never seen, they were gone, and the night was quiet and dark, and the sheep, still lay sleeping.
I pulled my face out of the dirt and saw that Jacob lay in the same position as I.
We looked at each other for a fraction of a second before frantically pulling ourselves up, and taking off down the hill, in the direction of Bethlehem, without a thought to our flock of mindless sheep.
Nothing else mattered. We ran as fast as we could, covering the miles between our herd and the town of David.
I lost a sandal and cut my foot, but hurried on. It seemed as though I wouldn’t have been able to stop even if I wanted to. Jacob matched my pace, even after he fell and twisted his ankle in a hole in the ground. Together we hobbled on as quickly as our injured feet would carry us, not a word passed between us. We seemed to know what the other was thinking. All that mattered was reaching our destination. We could worry about our bruises later.
Finally we reached the city gates. Panting, I held out my hand and stopped him before we walked through them.
“You know what this means.” I turned to him, sure that the fear showed in my face.
He nodded, hope and fear mixed together in his own features.
“If he’s really there–”
“Who are we? That they told us?” Jacob marvelled.
I shook my head and stared at him. Jacob, who was the rebel of his family, but my best friend. He was currently not speaking to his own father, who had pledged him to marry a girl in the next town over. Jacob was in love with my sister, but that made no matter to his father. And then I, who had so little faith in what we were now seeking, and who had questioned the very truth of it so many times, who had wanted it to be true selfishly, so that my mother could be saved, so that our pain and struggle could be erased.
“What will he think of us? Who are we to bow at His feet?” I whispered.
Jacob took a deep breath and clamped his hand on my shoulder. “We’re here, Mattias. We’ve abandoned our herd to see this King. Angels of the heavenly host told us where to find him. That doesn’t just happen. Let’s go.”
Breathlessly I nodded and we stepped through the gates of Bethlehem. I looked to the left, and he to the right. We had no idea where the baby would be, all we knew was that he would be in a manger. There were hundreds of stables in town. Would we have to search all of them? I knew before posing the question, that if it came to that, we would. We would search until we found him.
Jacob gasped and pointed. “Look.”
A huge star, as though miles closer than the others, shown down into the city.
“He’s there.” I whispered. I don’t know how I knew it, but I did. We set out in the direction of the star, which stayed unmoving as we jogged through alleys and dusty streets.
The town was quiet with sleep. It was the middle of the night, so we had to tread carefully so as not to wake anyone. Only our soft footsteps, and labored breathing filled the night air.
And then we heard it. Jacob froze and grabbed my arm. Immediately I felt a sob reach my throat. A soft newborn cry pierced the stillness, and the star was just overhead.
A humble stable stood before us, soft light pouring through the cracks in the walls.
“God of heaven and earth,” Jacob whispered, pulling me along. I was suddenly overcome with fear and guilt. All of the anger that I had hurled at the skies when my father died, and then again when my mother became ill. How many times had I rolled my eyes when she’d proclaimed that this night would happen. How many unbelieving prayers I had whispered, in desperation. And He was being revealed to me, on this night.
Jacob continued to drag me towards the stable, and I fought an inward battle. I wanted to run away, but I wanted to run towards him too. I was scared. What would this king say to me? What would the Savior think of me?
We got to the door, and Jacob pushed it open slowly. It made a creaking sound and I heard a cow grunt at the disturbance.
A young woman lay in the hay, flushed and dirty, her clothes soiled from the birth. Her tired eyes were on us as we approached, she smiled as though she had been expecting us. A man, considerably older, knelt beside her, wiping her face with a wet cloth and then, there was the manger.
Suddenly every thought that had plagued me just seconds ago, vanished and my heart was pounding faster than it ever had. I rushed the manger and fell to my knees for the second time that night. Grasping the sides of it with my hands I wept as my soul rekindled it’s childhood belief, and I knew, I just knew, that this was Him. Messiah had come, just like Mama had always said. I couldn’t even look at him at first. My tears blinded me, and I couldn’t speak for the sobs that shook through my body.
I could feel splinters digging into my skin because I was gripping the manger so tightly. I’m sure it was shaking along with me, but the baby didn’t cry, he made a soft gurgling noise, and I felt his tiny hind tap gently against mine. I looked up then, directly into his eyes, as his fingers curled and uncurled without any control.
“Messiah,” I whispered. He cooed again, and I swear, he looked at me, and in his eyes I saw things I can not even put into words. He knew all of my fears, and all of my failures, this tiny little baby, but still he drew me in and I felt that warmth seep through my veins again. I don’t know how she knew it, but Mama had been right. I imagine, in much the same way as she knew, I knew that though things might look the same on the outside, everything had changed. Nothing would ever be the same again. I began to pray in a way that I never had before, praising the Father of creation, and receiving the mercy that this child seemed to exude.
The man leaned forward and touched my hand. “Would you like to hold him?”
I was dumbfounded. Me? Hold the Messiah? I shook my head fervently. “I can not, sir. I can not.”
He smiled softly and nodded. “I understand.”
As the little fingers uncurled, I reached in my hand and touched them. Immediately they closed on my finger, and I drew in a sharp breath. His touch was warm, and seemed to reach into my very soul. There was no question who He was. Relief like I’d never known flooded through my body.
Hours later, though neither of us wanted to leave, we felt the time had come for us to return to our herd. The woman, Mary, was exhausted, and her husband, Joseph looked concerned for her. We pulled ourselves away from the manger and the baby who had consumed us–become a part of us– and bid them farewell.
“Jacob, I have to go home. I have to tell Mama.” I said as we walked away from the stable.
“I know. I’ll go back to the herd. Come when you’re ready.”
I nodded and once again, began to sprint, this time towards the country side where my family lived.
It was closer than the fields, and took half as long to get there. Abigail was pacing outside when I got there.
“Thanks be to God, Mattias!” she exclaimed and came running to me. “I just sent someone for you. It’s happening. Mama,” she said with tears in her eyes.
My heart stopped and I raced past her and through the doorway, ignoring Andrew, who sat on a stool with his head in his hands.
“Mama,” I cried and fell at the bedside. She was so pale, and I could hear the labor in her breath.
“Matt–” she whispered, and turned her eyes to mine. She gripped at my cloak and her eyes filled with tears. “He’s here.”
“I know, Mama. I saw him! You were right. He is here. Tonight!”
She smiled a feeble smile. “I prayed that I would live to see your faith restored. You have seen Messiah?”
I nodded vigorously. “Mama, I’m sorry that I ever doubted your faith. I’m so sorry that I ever spoke against you.”
Slowly she reached a decaying finger to my lips. “No time for that. You have seen Him, and now I am going to see Him.” She beckoned me closer and I leaned in, and kissed her cheek hard.
“I love you Mama. Thank you, for what you taught us. For how you raised us. For who you are.”
“He’s here, Mattias,” she said again, and with a smile that no dying woman had ever smiled, she breathed her last breath.
I sighed and wept for what felt like the thousandth time that night. But there was no more despair in my tears, there was no more fear for what had been or what would be. The Savior had given me the hope I had longed for, and my mother had passed on her faith to me. They were the greatest gifts I would ever receive.