It's a spring evening like so many others -- just warm enough to be comfortable outside well into the night -- and you and your clan are staying up to keep an eye on the flock. There have been some confrontations between your folk and the local farmers, who don't think desert nomads have any right to graze their animals so close to farmlands. So you've been avoiding going into town, grazing the flock at night when the farmers have gone to bed, and sleeping during the heat of the day. It's a pretty good situation -- your animals get what they need to survive, and you've avoided another skirmish with the farmers, at least until they figure out what you've been up to.
Not that any sane person would want to go into town right now, not with the government census going on. The place is packed to the gills with strangers, and there's not nearly enough room -- or food -- to accommodate all of them. You wouldn't put it past one of those shady innkeepers to hire someone to sneak out here under cover of darkness and steal a lamb, so he can slaughter it and serve it up to his guests. So you're keeping a sharp eye out, scanning the dark hills in case any uninvited visitors decide to make an appearance.
You never thought you'd need to look up.
But that's where the light comes from.
Brighter than moonlight, brighter than firelight, brighter than sunlight -- a brighter, purer, more blinding light than you believed could possibly exist. And in the center of that light is a being so supernally brilliant and powerful that it seems to burn with the radiance that pours from its form, and you know with an absolute certainty that with a single decisive word this being could ignite earth, sky, flock, shepherds and all, and sweep them away as though they had never existed.
You were there when a thief came in the night and held a knife to your throat while his compatriots stole three of your lambs. You were there the year the famine killed so many of your clan. You were there when your wife nearly died in childbirth. But you have never known true fear until now.
And then the burning, shining being above you speaks -- with the voice of a human, in your own language -- and the first words you hear from this majestic entity are almost impossibly soft and gentle:
"Don't be afraid."
Those gentle words flood you with such intense relief -- for you know, just as certainly as you knew it had the power to destroy you with a word, that this being does not lie -- that you do not completely take in what else is being said. Something about the town, about a messiah and a baby and a manger. And just when you think you're finally starting to get a handle on what's happening to you, the sky seems to open and fill with shining, glorious beings -- and now they are singing, and the transcendent beauty of their voices raised in praise of God creates so much wonder in you that you fill with it almost to the point of being consumed.
Then, just as suddenly as it came, the light is gone and you are left in darkness, the music of the spheres still echoing from the hills around you.
It is some time before you or any of the others can speak. When you do, you start to piece together the message that was given to you, and what it means. You don't concern yourself with farmers or borders or thieves any more; you don't even bother to gather the animals into the sheepfold. Instead, you and the others make straight for town.
It's stinking and noisy and crowded, even this late at night. But there are only so many inns in a town of this size, and you know from the message that you are to look not for wealthy guests in comfortable rooms, but in the stables. And finally, there they are -- the man still weary from the journey, still mostly grimy with the dust of the road; the woman still sweating and exhausted from recent childbirth. He has done his best to clear the area and put down fresh straw to make his woman as comfortable as he can; she has wrapped her newborn in cloth to keep him warm and secure, and placed him in the clean straw of a manger.
The child you have come to see looks like any other child -- pink and healthy, not unlike a newborn lamb -- with no special beauty to mark him out as a messiah, a savior of men. And yet this is the child whose birth was made known to you by supernatural means, by a being who could have destroyed you and who instead brought you news of joy and of glory... a being whose memory still lights your soul... a being who bade you not to be afraid. And you find that you are not afraid any more.
In fact, you feel compelled to tell everyone you meet the things you've seen -- and for the next while, that's just what you do. You tell your story to everyone who will listen, even the local farmers. Some roll their eyes and scoff at you, the nomadic rube. Some farmers try to pick fights with you. But others notice the peculiar way you've come alive, as though you glow with some kind of inner fire. So they listen. And they wonder. And some of them go off to the stable to see for themselves.
But you are content, because even if no one else listens to what you have to say, now you know. No matter what happens to you in the years ahead, you will always carry the gift of what happened this night; the truth of it is held alive within you like the knowledge of your own beating heart. And when you finally return to tend to the flock and round them up and lie down to get some much-delayed rest, you fall asleep to the indelible memory of unearthly voices raised in a song of warm and perfect love.
* * *
Sleep in heavenly peace, everyone. Happy Christmas.