An Advent reflection on a timely discovery
Every year at this time we consider the Christmas story, and I often try to see it afresh, in a new light or from a different angle in order to deepen my understanding and appreciation for this event. This year, something very providential has happened. You may know that Bethlehem has not had a large number of archaeological digs in it, but that all manner of things have been found. About fourteen months ago, a work crew was doing some excavation, and unearthed something of an archaeological discovery, among which was a remarkably well-preserved parchment. Through a series of scholarly contacts, I managed to come into an enlarged photograph of the parchment – it is extremely aged, and dates to somewhere around 2BC, or perhaps a few years later, as late as 10CE. It may well be the only copy of the document that ever existed, so it is a remarkable find indeed. I was able to read the detail of this enlarged photograph, and thereby to translate the contents of the document – as far as I know, this is the first appearance of its content in English – the original was in Aramaic. Here is the text of that parchment:
It was a chilly evening, and I was in the fields tending sheep with Elias. We had met up with a group of three other shepherds a few miles southeast of Bethlehem, and we all settled down and built a fire earlier in the evening for warmth. We sat around and shared some bread and cheese together, swapping stories and news for several hours. One of the fellows, Uri, had a reed pipe, and played for an hour or so while Elias and the others drifted off to sleep. We were to take the first watch to guard the sheep and keep the fire burning to offer some warmth for us all. I was deep in thought, and after some time I realized that the music from the reed pipe had stopped, and my companion was dozing now. I almost drifted off myself in the warmth of the fire, but I kept an eye on the sheep, which we had herded together into a temporary fold on the hillside. I kept fairly still in order not to awaken my companion – no need for both of us to be awake, really.
The strangest thing happened as I sat there in the cool night air…. I thought I saw a man moving about in the dark night sky above the hills. There was no moon that night, and the stars were brilliant – in fact, this is what had my attention directed toward the sky in the first place. I could only see glimpses of this man as he appeared to hover in the sky, but as I watched, he seemed to become more and more clear, until I could actually see him – an angel in the sky over the hills! I thought I heard him beginning to speak, but realized I must be hallucinating – angels are Yahweh’s holy ones, and do not appear to dirt people like ourselves – why, we are unclean! I was rubbing my eyes to shake off their tricks when I heard Uri stirring. He had only been dozing lightly, but he was half-standing now, and beginning to apologize for having fallen asleep – but as I turned to look at him, he stopped speaking mid-sentence, and stared out into the sky where I thought I had seen the angel – maybe I really had seen him! Uri immediately dropped to his face and cried out for mercy, which awoke the others with quite a start. We were all terrified – myself included, once I realized that the angel was not a product of my over-tired imagination.
“Do not be afraid,” he said.
We all heard what he said, every one of us. We all saw him with our own eyes. (Later on, we pooled our finances in order to buy parchment to write this account of it – I was elected since I had seen him first, and in truth, because my literacy is better.) But we all heard what he said, and we remember it clearly:
“I have good news for you: there is great joy coming to the whole people. Today in the city of David a deliverer has been born to you – the Messiah, the Lord. An this is your sign: you will find a baby swaddled in cloths, lying in a manger.”
The instant he had finished, there appeared a whole host of angels in the heavens, and they sang together beautifully, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth his peace for men on whom his favour rests.”
The sight and sound of the angels began to fade slowly before us, but we stood staring for a few moments, until Elias said, “The Messiah!” We turned and looked at him – and we all began to shout! Uri was already several strides toward town when he shouted, “Come on, God has told us – let’s go and see!” We quickly pulled the goats-hair tent over to cover the opening to the sheepfold and left the dogs to guard against predators… and soon we were all in a full run. Leaving the sheep, we all covered the short distance to town quite quickly. We were a little winded when we arrived at the edge of town: one of the other fellows – the youngest, an undershepherd – arrived first, and stopped. “Where would the manger be?” he asked. We didn’t know, so we began to look for a place with people stirring around it, and within a short time we found a little guesthouse with a lamp lit, where a woman was just emerging from the main house, carrying a tattered blanket. “We’re looking for the baby!” the undershepherd cried – she just stared at us like we’d gone crazy, but we rushed through the guesthouse door with her rushing through behind us. The room was very small, given that it held a donkey, two cattle, a goat, and a few people crowded around a little stone manger.
Elias blurted out, “We saw angels!” The young girl nearest the manger and the woman with the blanket quickly shushed him, but it was too late – he’d already wakened the baby, who began to cry. The child was wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger, just as the angel had said. At this point, the blanket-woman grabbed Elias by the arm to haul him out forcibly, but the child’s mother waved her off and we all moved further into the room where we could see him. Some of the others sat on the floor against a wall, being careful to avoid some poorly placed donkey-dung. The baby’s mother picked him up and rocked him until he quieted down, while the child’s father, Yosef, introduced himself and Mary, the baby’s mother. He also introduced us to the blanket-woman, who had awakened to Mary’s screams during childbirth. She was just bringing out another blanket for the baby when we had arrived, and seeing that Yosef was content for us to remain, she and her family withdrew back to the main house, leaving us alone with Yosef and Mary and the newborn baby whom we had sought.
The child was quiet again, and since a couple of us were crouched down around Mary to see the infant, Mary passed him to the nearer shepherd, who backed away and deferred to me – I wasn’t sure what to do, so I took the child carefully in my arms and sat down in the straw with the others. I know that everyone says how beautiful babies are, and babies are certainly precious… but I can’t really say that this one was all that striking – unless you looked into his eyes. His eyes were so deep you could almost see eternity…. no, you could see it. It was remarkable. He was so tiny, and yet his eyes looked as though they held the wisdom of the ages – I simply can’t express what his eyes said. He looked up at me, and I almost felt as though he could see right through me, like he was looking at… my soul. I held out my finger, and he grabbed onto it – his little fingers didn’t even reach all the way around one of mine – and he looked up at me, or he looked into me, or through me, I will never know which.
“What’s his name?” asked the undershepherd.
“Y’shua,” replied Yosef.
“So it’s true!” I said. “The Messiah! The angel said the child was the deliverer.”
“Baruch ha’Shem…. Y’shua ha’Messiah,” one of the others behind me barely whispered.
“Baruch ha’Shem,” I replied.
“Tell us about the angels,” Yosef urged.
We told him what had just happened, and we even tried to sing the angels’ song for them – with Uri accompanying on the reed pipe – or trying to, anyway. He had thrust the pipe into the goatskin bag he had over his shoulder, and still had it with him. We shared some cheese and olives from Uri’s bag, and they shared some bread and wine with us, and we remarked how ironic to take bread here in this house in Bethlehem [Bethlehem means “house of bread”].
As we ate, we listened carefully to Yosef’s story, and then to Mary’s. No wonder they had taken us at our word about seeing angels – they had each been visited by an angel! Mary was visited by Gabriel and Yosef by another angel in a dream. Imagine the seven of us all crowded into that tiny room surrounded by animals – all of us were just common folk, but all of us had seen angels to announce the birth of this little baby Y’shua. Yosef told us also about Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, whose husband was a priest – how she had miraculously conceived, and how an angel had appeared to her husband as well to announce the birth of the child. The boy was to be called Yohann, and be one like Elijah – a prophet.
After about an hour, when we had heard the stories of Yosef and Mary, we quietly sent the undershepherd back to the flock, while the rest of us stayed and marveled together with Yosef and Mary about all these things for several hours, worshipping God together. The boy returned after about two hours, carrying a lamb over his shoulders. Both our flocks were being kept for temple sacrifices, so most of the sheep were unblemished. Of these, he had selected the very best one at our instruction, and together we made a gift of the lamb to Yosef and Mary. We knew we would be chastised by our masters for this, but together we determined to work to pay for the lamb, whatever the cost.
Dawn was breaking when we left, and people were beginning to emerge from their homes – and there wasn’t one of them that escaped hearing our story on our way out of town, back to the fields and the flock. We sang the angels’ song again as we walked, and sang praises to God for the things we had seen. We marveled though, that the angels would choose us – the unlikeliest, the unclean, the “dirt people” – to hear the announcement of this wondrous thing. Then again, David was a shepherd, and Samuel anointed him king, perhaps in the very field in which we stood. And there was no disputing the fact: we all heard it. And we wished that everyone could hear the message that the angel brought us that night. And we wondered, and we marveled. But mostly, we considered the angels’ words, and their song, and we wished that everyone in the world could hear it too.
When I read this account of the unnamed shepherd, I want to ask him, “Did you know?” Did you know that the little hand that couldn’t reach around your own finger was the one that had flung the stars into space, and the hand that would one day be pierced to make you “clean?” Did you know that the little child in your arms would be a shepherd like yourself – but a shepherd to all of Israel? Did you know that this child was not only to be a shepherd, but also one day, a lamb without blemish, meant for sacrifice just like the lamb that you left with his parents? Did you know how fitting was the gift you left them? Did you know how fitting a guest you were? Did you come to know that in a feeding trough in the “house of bread” where you shared a simple meal, you found the “Bread of Life”? That your simple meal foreshadowed a greater meal, made up of much the same elements? Did you know that Herod would sweep through that little village and murder every child under two in search for this boy? Did you come to know how accurately you saw into his eyes? Did you ever know?
Somehow, I think you did. ….To the unnamed shepherd, I say on behalf of all who came to know what you saw and more, “We do hear it.” And to you, dear reader, concerning not only the message of the angels, but also the message of the child in the manger, “may you hear it too.”
Gratia vobis et pax,
December 15th, 1999
Footnote: I never thought I’d have to add disclaimers, but that was before I got any email about it when it first appeared online in 1999. Although the details given above are entirely within the realm of possibility – even plausibility, the account itself is entirely a work of fiction. The attestation given herein, although it is done falsely, is intended only to capture the reader’s imagination, and is not to be construed as an affirmation of fact. If you’ve just discovered at the end of the account that it isn’t real after all and been offended by it, I suspect that you’ve missed the point of the story. I’m sorry – not for having tricked you, but sorry that the appreciation for the events that you had while you were reading may have diminished in the end, and thereby you will have lost the value of the message. I hope you’ll reconsider.
Â©December 1999 & December 2004