I wonder, as we wander once again through this Christmas Eve ritual, what it was like for those shepherds, who lived where they worked. That’s an interesting detail in the gospel story tonight. God is wrapped in flesh and born to Mary, adopted by Joseph, and tucked away in a barn, and the first people to hear the news are folks who worked so hard that they lived where they worked, they made their home where they made their living.
I wonder what was on their minds that night, as the evening grew cold and their sheep huddled together for safety and warmth. I imagine they were tired. It sounds like the government had just completed a census, and lots of folks had to travel long distances to meet the requirements. It might have been an inconvenience for people with means to make that journey, but I wonder what it was like for people like these shepherds? Could they do their job and travel for the census – or was that just one of those laws they let slide, and hoped it didn’t catch up with them.
I wonder what it was like to look in over the city of Bethlehem from the hillsides above, and to see the firelight warming the inns where travelers laid their heads as they waited for the census to be completed. I imagine there was some daydreaming about how nice it would be to trade places with the people who could afford to take time off for travel, who could stay in cozy inns. I wonder if those daydreams helped keep away the cold.
I wonder if any of those shepherds caught sight of Joseph and Mary and their newborn baby as they brought sheep in from the pasture to be sold and stabled at the city’s inns, kept for food or for wool. I can imagine the conversations they might have had if they did…
“Well there’s at least one family that’s got it as rough as we do down in Bethlehem tonight. The inns are so packed they’ve started renting out space in the barns at a discount. There’s a pretty girl and her husband just got stabled along with the sheep I sold the innkeeper. And to top it off, she was extremely pregnant. Looked like she might give birth any minute!”
“Poor girl, hard enough being sick away from home. Who would want to get stuck giving birth in a city where you don’t know nobody, without even your mother to hold your hand? And in a barn, surrounded by animals?”
“Hey, what’s wrong with being surrounded by animals?”
“Yeah, why’s she any different than the rest of us? At least she has a place to bed down for the night with some cover if it rains.”
“I suppose, but still, to be so far away from home with no family to care for you.”
I can imagine it being something like that. I’ve worked the overnight shift before in homeless shelters. It’s not so different from working at an inn, or keeping watch over sheep by night, when it comes right down to it. You find things to talk about to pass the time. It’s quiet, so there’s space to think, to ask questions, to wonder.
“I’m still thinking about that girl and her husband. She looked kind of scared. I wonder if it’d be alright if I just left the sheep here for a little while to go check in on her, see how she’s doing.”
“Are you crazy? If we lose any of these sheep, the owner will have our heads! This census is making him rich, with everyone traveling and forced to find lodging away from home. He can basically set his own prices, and he still barely keeps up with demand. If you wander off and lose one of his sheep, you’ll be out of a job.”
“Oh, he can stuff it – I’m not afraid of him! Think of that girl and her husband having a baby all alone, away from family and friends. No one should have to do that by themselves. Besides, remember what Moses said, “you shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
“Alright preacher, I guess we have a prophet out in the fields tonight! But don’t forget, they made slaves out of us down in Egypt, and it’s not all that different now. We’re here in the fields, sleeping with animals, and they’re down in Bethlehem sleeping on beds of hay.”
“Oh no – we are not slaves, we are free people making an honest living in our own land. Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth!”
Sounds like something they might have sung out in the fields, “glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth.” Once you start singing, one song leads to another. Praise leads to more praise, and the blues lead to more of the blues. But from what the scriptures say, the shepherds got a message from the most high, and once they got over their fear, they started singing. And the Jews have plenty of songs to sing, a whole book of songs. Psalms for every occasion,
Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth | You will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with your truth | Let the heavens rejoice, and the earth be glad.
Once you start singing, it’s hard to stay scared. I wonder if they remembered the words of Moses about how to treat strangers in the land, or if they remembered the lyrics to the psalms and their bold confidence in God’s power to do a new thing. I wonder if they wandered away from their flocks, or if they took the sheep with them, to check in on that young girl and her husband.
I don’t know what happened that night, but it’s fun to imagine – to wonder aloud what it might have been like. What I do know is that those shepherds aren’t the only ones living to work instead of working to live. Plenty of us are living in the fields, bringing our work home at night, filled with fear over the state of the economy and what it might mean for our own job prospects.
Fear drives out compassion, it forces us into either/or thinking – there’s either enough for me, or enough for you, but not both. But the message from the most high God this night, and every night, is that God is met at the intersection of courage and hope; during the moments when it would be easier to go it alone, but in which we still reach for one another.
I wonder what it was like for Mary and Joseph to find themselves far from home, in shock over delivering a child in the back of barn, far from family and friends – and then, down from the hills comes a band of hard working people, worn out from a long night at work, worried about losing their jobs. Shepherds, keeping watch over their flock by night, and then digging deep to find a little bit more attention to keep watch over one more family and their newborn child. I imagine they held Mary’s hand and clapped Joseph on the back, telling them how beautiful their newborn child was, and no one was alone that night after all.
And Mary treasured their words, and pondered them in her heart. I wonder what she told her son as he grew in age and in wisdom abou
t the dignity of hard working people, and the necessity of caring for each other, even when it’s inconvenient or a hardship – especially when it’s inconvenient or a hardship. I wonder…