Shepherd’s Watch

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over the flocks by night. (Luke 2:8 NIV)

You have never seen such a sheepish
bunch of shepherds as they were
that morning when Miriam found them,
in the street, trailing back from the inn,
from the stables, if truth were to be told—
straw in their hair,
more than one with manure stains
where they had kneeled in the night,
red eyed with weeping and with wonder,
already now, in the cold light of dawn,
a little guilty at leaving the sheep.

They were shepherds, after all,
and the enormity of what they had done,
their utter dereliction of duty,
was bound to catch up with them sooner or later…

And here was Miriam, the most vocal
among the owners, ready to beat them
about the head with it right now:

“Look at you! Louts! Drunkards! Villains!
How long were my sheep alone,
unguarded, in the night, while you…”
she sputtered and strutted,
silenced by her own anger for a breath or two,
“Where did you sleep it off, in a stable?
You dare come creeping up to my door
without the sheep in the dawn
smelling of cow and donkey dung,
and you call yourselves shepherds…
sheep men? I ask you?”

And they had hung their heads and
taken it, not knowing where to begin,
how to explain…

“But you see,” said Ben, at last,
compelled to tell the wonder.
He was the youngest of them, barely fourteen,
and knew no better than to try:
“there was this great light in the sky,
shimmering curtains of wonderful color,
speaking and such singing…”

A few of the others cut their eyes
sideways at Benjamin, encouraging him,
silently, to go on,
since he seemed willing to speak for them.

“And they were saying about peace on earth and God’s will…”

And here Judah, oldest, and still a shepherd at forty,
nudged him from behind,
“Good will. It was ‘good will,’ and don’t forget the glory part…
‘Glory to God in the highest,’ they said…”

“And they said,” piped simple Nate,
“a king was born, and we would find him in a manger,
in a manger, wrapped in cloth, they said, in David’s city,
and we had to go and see, didn’t we?
A baby king. In a manger!”

“They told us,” added Jeremiah the joker, from the back,
“not to be afraid, though by then I had nearly wet myself,
the light all around and the voices out of the sky,
it was enough to frighten a stone I tell you…”

And now it was coming back to them all,
the awe of it, the mind and heart bursting
splendor of that heavenly choir,
the compulsion to get up and find this baby,
to bow down, to worship,
“and so,” Benjamin continued,
“we went, all of us, not a thought for the sheep…”

They were all nodding now, eyes up,
meeting Miriam’s, unashamed,
pleading for her understanding without expecting it.

“We couldn’t help it. A chance to see a king
born in a manger and all, we had to go, and we did.”

Miriam snorted, but she was just a bit daunted
by their assurance, by their willingness to meet her eye in this,
where they should have been, rightfully,
groveling before her, destroyed by their own guilt.

“And we found him, right there where the angels said…”

And so Benjamin became the first to speak out loud
what they had all been thinking.
“Angels, yes angels!”
ran through them all like dawn…

“…in a manger in a stable back of Josiah’s father’s inn,
down on Straight Street, the one at the east end, not the west…
and there he was, just a baby, but the light about him,
the love, I tell you it brought us to our knees
right there in the straw, all of us,
as though the layers of sheep grime and
rough living had been stripped away in a moment,
and we were naked
(“and clean,” this from Judah again)
there in the presence of God,
better than any temple it was, that stable,
and I for one,” and he cast his eyes around his fellows,
“we all really, just fell on our faces and cried and cried,
and then I crawled right up and touched the tiny hand.

His mother held him up and I saw his eyes
looking right through me to my soul,
and I swear he smiled—the little lamb of God—
and I put my rough hand up and stroked his cheek,
and it was like touching God, I tell you,
it ripped the soul right out of me with love,
and I don’t think I will ever be the same…”

“The world will never be the same…”
And Judah stepped forward and looked Miriam in the eye.
“He’s the great shepherd come at last,
and your sheep are safe without us or anyone to watch them.
That’s what they said.
‘Peace on earth. The season of God’s favor.’

and I believe them! I know it is him.
He’s come! And the world had just better look out!”

He stepped back into the group and turned,

and they followed him, out to the fields
to fold blankets and fill water skins,
to take up their shepherd’s duty once again…

But you had better believe
they watched the sky by night with new eyes…

as they waited now,
for what the few short years of childhood
would certainly release into the waiting world.

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