And shepherds were tending their sheep at night and behold . . .

The grinding movement of time toward the end was slow and steady, one day following another, night falling expectantly, darkness ruling the land until the hues of dawn foretold the beginning of a new day like all the others. The beauties of starry nights and rosy dawns were lost amid the suffering and cries of the tortured, ill, and dying. The people could not see that truth and goodness overshadowed the land at dusk and brightened the world with new light. The divine punctuated the sameness of daily toil and disturbed repose. Creation waited expectantly, if humans were blind to the emerging truth surrounding them. The stars appeared ever brighter, the night sky ever clearer, the sounds of night like a choir rejoicing in the arrival of the child. Most people closed their doors and shuttered their windows to the lights and sounds of the night. Some people, however, could not help but see and hear. Shepherds watching over their flocks knew the night sky, watched the progression of stars and constellations, kept track of Orion and the Pleiades, the rising of the Dog Star, Sirius, the strange patterns of the wandering planets. They knew the sounds of night, and the sameness of each night, the constancy of creation from season to season. But there was a change to the unending sameness. The constancy of nature was suspended as the timeless entered time. The lights and songs of the night jarred them from their slumber, and they looked in awe, listened intently, to the message told them by the night. A child is born. God is with you.           

            Travelers caught on the road took extra care to keep to the path, letting the stars, which shown brightly in the clear desert air, guide them. Gentle zephyrs whispered among the palms, sycamores, and figs. Those still awake resting after the labors of the day awaited sleep and the new day. Everyone, human and beast, anticipated dawn. In the town, a few feeble lights interrupted the overwhelming darkness. Candlelight and oil lamps cast great shadows upon mothers caring for sick children, feeble old men refusing to sleep, and the anxious despairing over deeds of the past and retribution yet to come. Tavern owners had shut the doors and hostelers closed the gates. Those wanderers needing food and rest were left to fend for themselves.

            The man and woman, having come from afar to fulfill the requirements of the law, arrived after dark. The man was a native of the town, though not a resident, and had known of neither friends nor family who could host him and the woman for the night. The woman was exhausted and about to give birth. Starlight pointed the way to a rustic barn filled with hay and feeding troughs. The woman tried to stifle her fears and the cries of pain as the baby would wait no longer. The man found a bucket and a well, drew water and wet some clothes, and tended the woman the best he could. After a time she made the final push and the baby emerged in a splash of warm fluid from the womb amid cries of anguish and joy. The man cut the cord and gave the naked child to the mother, who wrapped him in clothes to protect him from the cold and held him to her still heaving breast. Soon the cries were stifled and the child slept. The man put the child in the only object resembling a cradle, a manger that he packed with straw. The woman kneaded her womb to try to stop the ongoing cramps.

            In the dead of night the stars shown more brightly, particularly one that seemed to herald for the man the new life brought into the world. Accompanying the apparent brightening of the star were noises caused by the movement of the natural and supernatural. The man heard rapturous singing voices and wondered whence they came. Soon he heard the footsteps and shouts of man, and guardedly asked what they wanted. He could detect trembling in their voices and fear in their faces, glistening from tears. They were shepherds, they said, who were reclining in the surrounding hills, watching over their sheep, when they had been astonished by amazing figures in the sky, glowing ethereally, singing, glorifying God. One of the messengers told them of the miraculous birth of the son of the most high God in this very town of Bethlehem, and that the child would be found lying in a manger in a barn. When the messengers departed, in their wake was the bright starlight that shown upon the town. The men said that though they had been terrified they could not doubt their senses, and knew that God had commanded them to go and find the baby, to worship this child, Immanuel. They looked upon the sleeping infant and continued to weep and shutter excitedly, glorifying God and the great miracle He had deigned to allow them to witness.

            The appearance of the shepherds astonished Joseph, the father, who was nevertheless not completely unprepared. He was a descendant of King David, the anointed, and had been taught the Scripture, and knew the prophecies that the Messiah would herald from the house of David, and be born in the City of David, Bethlehem, Joseph’s own birthplace. Although Joseph was a craftsman, not a scholar, he was dutiful in attending the synagogue, following Mosaic Law, and reading the Scriptures. He knew what Isaiah said about the suffering servant who would be born of a virgin. Reality and experience reflected the dream that had informed Joseph that his wife, Mary, was this virgin.

            Mary listened to the shepherds and pondered what they had witnessed. All that she had been told was coming true. Nine months before, she had been a young maiden living with her parents in Nazareth in Galilee, betrothed to a good man, Joseph the carpenter. Her dreamlike experience of the messenger who hailed her and proclaimed that she was the mother of God had in due course occurred as predicted: her body had changed and her womb had grown. The birth of a wonderful, healthy child and the words of the shepherds were amazing, if expected. 

            Joseph and Mary had bound themselves in the acceptance of God’s will. During Mary’s pregnancy they had learned, along with the other inhabitants of Galilee, Samaria, and Judaea, of Caesar’s requirement that all heads of family enroll at the place of their birth. Mary had been in her ninth month when they began the five-day journey to Bethlehem. Jews were taught to obey the Mosaic Law in synagogue and the Roman law by circumstance.

            The checkered political history of the Jews, the ongoing political struggle for power by dynasts among the chosen people, combined with the ceaseless aggression directed toward Israel and Judah, later Galilee, Samaria, and Judaea, by outsiders—Chaldeans, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans—had left the Jews a weakened people subject to the whims of outside forces. For several generations the most compelling and dominant force was that of Rome. Like most occupying powers throughout history, Rome required little from its subject peoples as long as they obeyed the laws and paid their taxes. The enrollment that forced Joseph and Mary to journey to Bethlehem was in accord with the latter. Romans governed subject peoples indirectly by means of local rulers, kings and tyrants, and directly, by appointed officials, who were given complete authority subject to the supervision of the Senate, formerly, and at this time, the imperial power, held by Octavian, or Augustus, Caesar. Augustus, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, had held power for almost forty years. He along with other tyrants, had destroyed the Republic, substituting the rule of one person. Augustus held power by controlling Rome’s huge military. In the Near East, he preferred to control kingdoms by means of a patron-client relationship with rulers such as Herod and his sons and successors. These men ruled as long as they followed Augustus’ bidding and kept order. Often they worked in cooperation with Roman officials—procurators, propraetors, proconsuls, and governors. Augustus maintained remarkable control by a strong Roman troop presence on the frontiers of an empire that encompassed parts of three continents. The large military was a continual drain on the empire’s resources, for which Augustus paid by taxation. To know what was the proper tax quota for each province and client kingdom required meticulous records of the number of citizens. Hence Augustus ordered the enrollment, or census. Joseph, Mary, and the child stayed in Bethlehem for several days to allow for Mary’s recovery and for Joseph to enroll with the local officials. Joseph was able to find more secure lodgings for his family. He prepared to make the journey home to Nazareth, planning on his way to stop at Jerusalem to accomplish Mary’s purification according to Mosaic Law and for the circumcision of the child according to the Abrahamic Covenant. Meanwhile the shepherds were not silent about their miraculous experience. Word had spread and the devout and curious came from surrounding villages to see the child. Most astonishing of all the visitors were Chaldean stargazers bearing gifts and kneeling before the child.

(This is an excerpt from Metamorphosis: How Jesus of Nazareth Vanquished the Legion of Fear, available at Amazon:

About theamericanplutarch

Writer, thinker, historian.
This entry was posted in History and Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s