My little cousin and I watch as my uncle washes away the blood, and examines the wound. He is making that odd breathless noise—halfway between a gasp of surprise and a sigh of regret—that he always makes when an attack has been thwarted. My uncle, after all, is nearly forty; an old man long past the charms of making his bed upon the chill earth at night; disenchanted with stargazing while wolves in the dark distance howl, or creep in silence, just beyond our sight.
It is different for his son, my cousin. Joining us in the fields, he had adopted the self-important swagger of a boy set to working among the men, but a month of raw weather, of keeping predators at bay while saving the sheep from themselves—for there is no stupider creature on G-d’s earth than a sheep—has brought a dullness to his step. A wolf can be cunning, but does not have to be; even a lupine dullard is smarter than the filthy, stinking sheep we guard and save and lead and nurse back to health, when we can.
This sheep, my uncle pronounces, as he treats the wound with garlic and honey and binds it tightly, will likely live; its wound is slight. As I watch him work, my imagination and my stomach conspire against me. Our meal tonight was only lentils and bread and at the notion of a lamb roasted with garlic my gut has gone rude and noisy.
This, more than anything, overwhelms whatever meager pleasures a shepherd might take in his labors: the hunger. For all that the night-sky fascinates and the breezes alive in the grassy pastures may bring delight, there remains a constant sense of hunger—of an appetite never fully assuaged. This gnawing emptiness is no accident of poor planning; it is by design. To be slightly hungry is to be awake, alert. A shepherd who eats his full finds his senses dulled—he becomes more likely to want a nap and that always becomes a hard sleep. If a predator comes, or a sheep gets himself lost, or trapped—or has stumbled into harm’s way, as they always do—the shepherd will be too weighed down to react; his reflexes too slow. One cannot run well with a full belly.
Still, when we bake our breads upon the fire daily, my wish is to add a few fistfuls of flour into the mix; to bake enough bread to fill in the chinks until I am finally sated. When I have tried, always my older brother has stayed my hand. “We have the rations,” I argue, but he shakes his head. “Be prudent and stay prepared,” he says. “Each day we must have bread.”
I hate being a shepherd.
Tonight, my cousin and I will have the first watch. My cousin—as he does most nights—raises his fine young voice in song. I take a mouthful of water and amuse myself, not for the first time, with the idea of becoming a pirate; I imagine the tang of salty air—a breeze that bears nothing of the sheep’s traveling stench upon it—and all the fish and bread I can eat.
A daydream can be almost as distracting as a good sleep, and so I give it up after a while, and make my survey. My cousin has left off his singing; the flock is peaceful and sleeping. The early clouds of evening have given way, and all is bright.
So, what is it that has raised the hair at the back of my neck? Even a placid night has its share of howls and screams in the distance and yet—there, again—a noise at once frantic and angry. It is a sound so eerie and unfamiliar—the growls of defensive, indignant rage, and weird, guttural shriekings; there is a timbre, a tone that I have never heard before—of hellish, ruthless hate, something desperate and deep, and it chills all of us to the marrow. My cousin and I seek each other out and our fathers and the rest arise, and we stand a confused and terrorized guard. The harrowing fury is all around us, it seems drawn up from the very bowels of the earth, and yet we do not seem to be directly under siege.
The caterwauling makes me cover my ears, but I am too afraid to close my eyes. My cousin is screaming, though, bent prostrate in terror, and the rest of us are rooted where we stand.
Above the noise there comes a snap! A sound like a crackle of lightening only faster, and brighter, and something great and terrible is upon us! The furious tumult that has surrounded us is met with something equally loud, equally fearsome but of a different nature; it is the booming, crystalline sound of light, and for a brief moment—it can only be a moment, but it seems to go on and on, into eternity—we are encompassed within a battle, and a reality, that bears no relation to any thing we have seen with our eyes, or known though our senses or tasted with our mouths. For this brief instant we are in a place of hair-raising truth, of things-as-they-are, visible and invisible, and of a fullness that is absolute.
And suddenly, the commotion dies; the howling shrieks of rage recede and are silenced and now there is a hum—a vibration, growing near, and becoming loud—as though the very heavens were a hive. There is light building upon light, yet we are not blinded. Before my cousin something is formed within this light and it bends toward him. It says, “Do not be afraid.” His trembles stop and he looks up; and in this strange new reality of integration we see what we are hearing, and are hearing with our eyes. “Behold!” we hear, we see: “I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: You will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
And the hive of heaven is rent; the skies are filled with these messengers, these beings, these . . . I do not know what! And the thrum and murmur grows marvelous, bursting into a song of surpassing, unearthly beauty: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
We are in the midst of holiness; we are introduced to a wholeness—earth and heaven, field and sky—this sense of oneness, so much greater than ourselves; a resolute invitation away from the awful, inescapable loneliness of our small sect, our smaller selves.
It is irresistible. We walk to Bethlehem, bells ringing, bringing our sheep. My uncle carries the injured one on his shoulders, and we travel familiar, narrow by-ways that keep us, always, at the margins of the city—away from marketplaces and inns, for we know our place; we are shepherds; we stink of the sheep.
We find the hewn place, like a cave, and again there is light or not light, precisely—oh, how do I tell it? It is a kind of mist of brightness, and it is alive; it contains a hum, a buzz, a fizz that is like pulsing life, and it is everywhere, and it bathes everything and everyone in its warm glow.
All is as we have been told. As we approach I see tears coursing down my father’s weathered face, and he does nothing to stanch them. My uncle stands in muted awe, lamb still across his shoulders, and my cousin steps eagerly forward and is stayed by a man. He is older than our own fathers and his countenance is careworn, kindly—radiant, within that luminescence. We tell him what we have seen—that we have been invited—and he tells us his name, Joseph, and permits us to linger at the edge and peer within. We behold a young mother cuddling a newborn. Having fed him of herself, she is in the act of placing him on the freshly-lain, sweet-smelling straw with which the manger has been filled. After a glance at Joseph, she raises the babe, that we might better see him. She holds him high against her breast, showing off her son with obvious pride and love, and with her right hand she makes a gesture of presentment. We are confounded to adore him with an ardor strangely equal to her own. Finally, she lays the child down. In the food bin, he rests.
By his loud sigh I understand that my uncle has been holding his breath, not daring to breathe in the sight of this intimacy, “which will be for all the people,” he murmurs to no one in particular.
Here, in a small spot on the edge of Bethlehem, the old stories and prayers and songs flit through my memory like leaves turning in the wind; “in your light, we see light.” And, “But you, Bethlehem . . . out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”
I shiver to recall the words. Shaking my head to clear it, seeking normalcy in routine, I take a shepherd’s survey of my surroundings. Here are beasts of burden; over there, cattle and fowl, for sacrifice and for feasting; there, a supply of grain, some fruits—the good nourishment of the earth. There are jugs of water, and of wine, and the small satchel of flour, common to us all, because each day we must have bread. There are a man and a woman and a child.
My father, cheeks still wet with tears, leans toward me, his arm at my shoulders, pulling me into rare embrace. “My son,” he whispers, “we are in Paradise.”
Yes. In the small time of the night—the hours during which only perhaps mothers join shepherds in wakefulness—we have been privileged to stand at Eden’s threshold. I cannot be a mother, so a shepherd I will remain.
Elizabeth Scalia is the author of Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols of Everyday Life and the managing editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos.com, where she blogs as The Anchoress . Her previous articles can be found here .