Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Night the Angels Sang, Part 1

I wrote this story back in March when reading through the book of Luke. I hope you will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!

Judah stretched himself out on his back on the grass which was dampened by the cool night mist. He let out a quiet, contented sigh as he gazed on the immaculate dome above him. How he loved a night like this! Not a cloud marred the sparkling display above. A slight, cool breeze swept over the hill and down to the town of Bethlehem slightly beyond. The sheep grazed peacefully, at ease in the knowledge of the care and skill of their keepers. And Judah could lay there in the same peacefulness, as though he were under a spell cast by the beauty of the night, and he could pick out pictures made by the stars above—beautiful pictures that his father had taught him to find during the many nights out in the fields, watching sheep. Judah liked to think that all the pictures worked together to tell a marvelous tale of excitement and adventure.

Some perhaps might find a shepherd’s life dull, inferior, and undesirable. True, there were long, hot days, and long, cold nights; exposure to wind, rain, dust, and the scoffing of others; there were stubborn sheep that refused to listen and caused no end of trouble to the shepherds: searching, shouting, climbing, putting themselves into all kinds of peril to bring them back. And yet there was something about this work that drew Judah. What it was, he could not exactly tell. Perhaps it was the freedom to roam. Maybe it was the delight of caring for—and even bonding with—God’s creatures, out in God’s creation—something few people had a chance to do. But perhaps the reason was nights like these—all the tumults and struggles of the world were quietly left behind, forgotten, for some time, in the mere joy and peace of being as close to God’s original desire for beauty and order as possible. Rome might control the land, it might lay heavy taxation on the people and require registrations—as was the new decree of Caesar’s, in action that very day in the town below—, people might hate and hurt each other… But no one could touch those beautiful, twinkling skies overhead or mar the massive dome. No one could hurt them or move them or change them. Those were God’s stars, and, in Judah’s perspective, like little peepholes into His even more magnificent splendor. Judah wasn’t sure he could ever bear to see a full display of God’s glory and splendor—how terrifying it would be!—and yet he was glad for these peepholes.

“I say it’s time He step in and do something. This world is going down fast.” Judah’s reverie was broken by these agitated words, spoken by a fellow-shepherd, Jonas. Judah hadn’t noticed that there was a conversation going on until just then, and, as much as he wished to hold to the glory of the moment, his interest was too piqued now to return to that. He propped himself up on his elbow and listened to his father’s reply.

“Yes, I also long for the day when God vindicates His people Israel and shows us His glory and redemption,” Alphaeus was answering, his tone of voice confirming the word he had used—“long”.

“Does He not care?” Jonas exclaimed, almost despairingly. “Come, Alphaeus, do you not also wonder that such a great and mighty God can look upon the plight of His own people and let it go on as if it were none of His business?”

His question was following by a long pause, broken only by the soft whisper of the breeze and the quiet bleating of a few sleepless sheep. Judah knew his father well enough to know that this pause was not caused by doubt on his part, or from a feeling of being beaten. He was merely collecting his thoughts, which at least he voiced: “We do not deserve His attentions. We, our people, have rejected His Word, His work, His prophets… We have stubbornly chosen to go our own way, despite His invitation to return. Why would He want to aid us now? And yet—” Jonas had been about to protest, but the “yet” caused him to fall back silently and wait. “And yet,” Alphaeus continued, “I think—I hope—I believe, even—He does see. He must see. He is a God of mercy. If He were not, this world we live in would be burnt to a crisp in no time at all. God has promised redemption, salvation… Messiah. I do not know when He will fulfill this promise, but I know—I know He will, at the perfect time, just as he did in rescuing our people from bondage in Egypt. But oh, that He would act soon!”

This brought a lull in the conversation, which gave Judah time to think. He loved to hear his father speak in this way. He knew that when Alphaeus was a child, he had listened in rapture to the Scriptures read and expounded on the Sabbath, and gleaned all he could of the Sacred Writ. What he had learned, he had taken to heart and then shared them with his children. Judah loved to sit at his father’s feet on the long, lone days of watching sheep, and listen to the great stories of God’s miraculous works in Israel, and to His precious promises in the Psalms and the Prophets. Judah never felt it was his place to voice it, but he, too, wanted to see God fulfill His promise to send a messiah to free His people from this bondage under Rome. And yet he had heard the promise so often repeated by his father, and it sounded so far away—in the past or the future, he knew not—but he wondered if it could possibly happen in his lifetime.


“Oh! Oh, God, have mercy! Have mercy on us!”

The terrified voices again brought Judah to reality. He hadn’t realized until now that at some point his thoughts had grown muddy and he had drifted off to sleep. Now he jerked up at the sound of the voices and became aware of a strange brightness—bright, brighter than the sun—surrounding them, tearing the night sky. Judah looked—and instantly the terror that had enveloped his father and Jonas jumped at him and wrapped him up like a spider does a fly that wandered into her net. For there, in the sun-like magnificence was a man—or at least he looked like a man, and yet at the same time was quite unlike anything Judah had ever seen. The man’s clothes were white and reflected the light so that it almost pained Judah’s eyes to behold. The shining man, the shining garments, the shining sky terrorized the boy, and he fell on his face with muffled cries similar to that of the other shepherds. What was happening? Was this God? Woe to them if it were, for no man could see God and live, Judah had heard, and now he had an inkling why. The brightness nearly blinded him, and he covered his eyes in terror. He clung to the grass, as he seemed to be whirling around in the dizziness of the moment.

“Fear not,” said a warm, unfamiliar voice. The words were like a warm breeze passing over Judah, and his soul began to feel a calmness. He slowly unscrewed his eyelids and peered warily at the glorious display. The shining man was still there, and he was speaking with a tone of mixed compassion, joy, authority… and many other things that Judah couldn’t make out.

“Fear not,” he was saying, “for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy that shall be for all people.”

A tingle of thrill shot down Judah’s back at the words—“good tidings”, “joy”, “all people”. The dread of the moment did not seem quite so great as those words of goodwill came from the heavenly man’s mouth.

“For unto you,” the shining man continued with joy, “is born this day in the city of David—”

That’s Bethlehem, thought Judah.

“—A Savior, who is Messiah, the Lord.”

The words struck Judah like a blacksmith’s anvil, and he could sense the shock from Alphaeus and Jonas as well. Messiah? The Savior? The promised redeemer? Could he really be hearing this man right? Or was this a dream, carried over from the conversation he had overheard that very night?

It was as though the angel anticipated or sensed their doubt, for he then said, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby, wrapped in swaddling cloths, and lying in a manger.”

A manger? Judah scarcely had the time to register the thought—Messiah, born in a stable?—for suddenly the angel was joined by an innumerable host. It was as though all the stars had drawn close and were all ablaze on that Palestinian hill, singing in loud, triumphant strains:

“Glory to God in the highest,

and on earth peace, good will toward men!”

The glory was petrifying; the news was petrifying. For a moment, Judah wondered if he had actually died in his sleep and was actually at heaven’s gates. But then, quietly, like a fire being smothered, the heavenly host vanished, the herald among them, and there was again the still night and the cloudless dome of sky—only the stars seemed so much dimmer.

It seemed like a whole minute had passed when Jonas finally said in a shaking voice, “Alphaeus, did you just see what I just saw?”

Alphaeus nodded mutely.

“Did you hear what I just heard?” Jonas added.

Again, Alphaeus nodded, but no words came from his gaping mouth.

“Judah!” Jonas hurried to the boy on shaky legs and grabbed his shoulder as if to make sure he was real. “Judah, did you see a bright light, and a shining man, and a heaven-like choir, and did you hear them say that Messiah was born in Bethlehem yonder?”

“I did.” Judah nodded, realizing that his whole body was in tremors. Silence, strange silence, filled the night air. Realization settled on Judah. He had just seen an angel—a whole host of angels. He had just heard the announcement that God had indeed remembered his promise, made so long ago, and that Messiah Himself, the Savior, was there, in Bethlehem, not a mile away, sleeping in a manger—which meant, a stable. Could it be? Could it really, truly be?

The silence was broken as Alphaeus lifted his palms towards heaven, his eyes still fixed on the spot where they had seen the angel, and said aloud, “Praise be to God, who has visited his people from on high and revealed this glorious news to men of no significance.” Then, on impulse, he stood up and said in a voice almost jolly, “Jonas! Judah! Did you realize? Messiah is come! Come with me; let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us!” And he began to almost run in the direction of the sleeping town.

“But stay!” Jonas grabbed his elbow. “Are you sure? I mean—what if this is all a dream?”

Alphaeus shook off the hand and replied with conviction, “I cannot think it was a dream—we all saw it, and it was too real to be a dream. Here we all are—I can feel the roughness of my cloak on my back sure as day, and I do not remember waking up either.” At that, he turned and headed towards the village.

“But father,” Judah called after him, “what about the sheep?”

“Leave them, leave them, my son!” Alphaeus called over his shoulder. “The Messiah is born!”

If one had been looking in the direction of the hill that night, they would have seen a running procession as the three shepherds, each becoming more and more convinced and excited, sped down the hill towards the sleeping city of David.

(to be continued)

1 comment:

Bethany A. said...

Oh Melanie, I loved it! It sent chills up and down my spine...can't wait for the next part! I don't think you let me read this before...;)

wv: board (I know what that means!!:))