And there was a shepherdess

Here’s this year’s Christmas story for you…

You say that it’s a fairy story for children, but while it’s true that I was a child, there were plenty of adults present who saw what I saw. What’s more, those were angels, not fairies. You say the facts don’t add up and that the dates don’t match, but dates don’t mean much when time stands still and all eternity is contained in one single moment. You say I’m just an old woman, and it’s true that sometimes I forget my grandchildren’s names, but how could I ever forget the night when I held all the love and light and truth of the universe in my arms? You say such a thing can’t happen, but it happened to me.

Listen, and I’ll tell you. I was about five years old, just a tiny, fierce little thing, always in trouble. I’d had a very bad day, just told off and punished from waking up to supper time. I had a baby sister whom I wished had never been born and I guess I’d let my resentment show too much. So, as my father and my oldest brother were getting ready to go out to the fields for the night shift looking after the sheep, mother bundled me off with them. “She’s just not safe around the baby,” she said.

So off we went into the night. I didn’t want to go. It was bitterly cold – one of those nights when there’s so much ice in the air that the stars have haloes around them, and the wind carries a knife. And the sheep stank. I crouched down near the mean little fire the men had going and put on my best scowl. “Just stay there and keep quiet,” said father. I stared into the flames. It was going to be a long night.

The next thing I knew, the sky was alight and alive. The haloes weren’t around stars but around enormous, golden, sparkling people, hovering on huge graceful wings. They were singing and the music was like it came from beyond the stars, it was so breathtakingly beautiful. I looked around me and the men were on their knees, and their weather-beaten under-nourished faces looked almost as beautiful as the angels. I was terrified and I ran to my father and buried my face in his cloak.

The singing faded and one of the men said, “Let’s go and see for ourselves.” Father got up and said to me, “Well, are you coming?” There was no way I was going to stay out there on that hillside, so I trotted alongside the men towards the village.

We came to Ben’s house. There, where he kept his milk goat, was a baby lying in the goat’s feeding trough. I was horrified. Babies ruined everything and another one was the last thing I wanted to see. This was the worst day of my life.

I felt a hand on my head. It was the baby’s mother. She seemed so peaceful and kind and she said, “You’re such a good girl. Thank you for coming to see us.” And I sort of felt like perhaps I was good, and that felt good. I peered over into the hay and looked at the baby sleeping. Gingerly, I reached out a finger and stroked his cheek. I could feel my father tensing up beside me – after all, I wasn’t safe around babies. But the baby’s mother said, “Would you like to cuddle him? It’s OK.” I leaned over into the manger and put my arms around him. He opened his eyes and held my gaze and it was like looking into the night sky, into the darkness beyond the stars, like all of everything, the depths of the ages, was there in his eyes and yet I didn’t feel lost or frightened like I had on the hillside. As I held him, I felt held. Eternal arms were underneath me and swaddled within mine. I felt I was safe, that I was OK, that I had nothing to fear.

It didn’t make me a saint. But afterwards, whenever I held my baby sister, and when in time I held my own children and then their children, I remembered that baby in the hay and it was like I was with him again. Every time my hands have held another hand, I have known that I am held and you are held and the world is held in a love greater than could be imagined – a love I first held in that baby long ago and that has never let me go.

You say that it’s all in my head, but when I look back over my life, I can only make sense of it in the light of that night. You say that people don’t change and we have to accept the world as it is, but I tell you that I was there when the glory of God was revealed to a bunch of peasants so poor they didn’t even own a single share of one of the sheep they were looking after, but that night they felt like the whole world belonged to them and it would never be the same again. You see, I was there the night Jesus came.

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