|Annunciation to the Shepherds- detail from the Isenheim altarpiece.|
The wind blew among the rocks, and the stars sparked and spun overhead. Midnight, and little was heard over the wind whistling among the rocks and shrubs and white clouds of sheep that dotted the landscape. The dim blue light that had lingered since the crimson sunset had long since subsided to indigo and then black. The three shepherds talked amongst themselves only to help stave off sleep, and boredom, and the whine of the wind.
Maybe that’s why they didn’t notice the wind suddenly stop. Suddenly, a star to the east flared brightly. The youngest shepherd saw it first, and grabbed his brother’s robe to get his attention and point his eyes toward the sight. There was just a few moments’ pause, and then-- it was if dawn had sliced the sky in two, and they were blinded as light poured down upon them, the stars vanishing instantly.
The eldest shepherd’s body seemed to hum and vibrate as a great wall of sound buffeted like a storm around them, vibrating like the string of the harp still slung over his back. The song that he heard was of indescribable beauty, and his knees buckled. A flickering, dancing figure, even brighter than the brightness that had burst down, appeared before his dazed eyes, and sang to them, telling them not to be afraid.
Not be afraid? Of course, they were terrified, for who can look upon God and live?
But the Messenger repeated again her reassurance. She told the shepherds then that she bore good news of the birth of a child in a town nearby, Bethlehem. The Messenger told them what they would see there without ever actually telling them to go, and each word from her mouth was like a trumpet blast, yet sweeter than honey.
Then an entire throne of angels descended, singing glory to the Holy One, who had granted the shepherds favor and honor indeed. And the music poured over them like honey from the comb, and their rampaging hearts raced with wonder.
Then it was over. The angels and the choir receded back into heaven, and the darkness descended again, darker than dark as their eyes were still dazzled. Slowly, the stars winked back to life again. Almost shyly, the wind resumed its soft susurration among the rocks. The sheep grazed on.
The angelic choir still echoed in their ears, there among the rocks.
Yet peace like a warm cloak settled over them, and they knew the direction of the town and the direction of the star and the direction the Messenger had given them.
And so, they were drawn toward Bethlehem, to see a king in a cattle-stall; a messiah in a manger. There they saw Love in human form come down at Christmas, and the world has never been the same.
May we all be drawn there, too. Drawn toward the Love that turned and slept in his mother’s arms. Love that offers us everything and demands from us everything in return. Love that stands against principalities and powers.
Love that moves among us still, and calls us home.
(This was first published on The Episcopal Cafe's Speaking to the Soul on December 20, 2016)