I wrote this ages ago, but tend to get it out at this time of year, rather like a beloved tree ornament. I’m indebted to two people, without whom this story couldn’t have happened. Christopher had the original idea and Alex Broughton (who did Jonty’s sonnets for All Lessons Learned) did the theological ‘beta’.
Good will to all men
It was cold. It was always chilly out on the hills, even with the fire to keep the wild animals at bay and warm us poor shepherds’ feet. Joshua always had the knack of finding enough fuel to keep up a decent blaze. We didn’t always ask too closely about where it came from.
Tending the flocks; it’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. People want the wool and the milk and the meat, even if they don’t want much to do with the men who help produce them. Bloody hands a child called me the other day—of course his parents didn’t do anything but snigger behind their hands. Unclean, that’s what we are.
It’s not just the weather that’s cold to us.
“Come home, Micah.” At least Joshua’s voice was always warm.
“Come home from wherever your thoughts took you.” He smiled at me, although I couldn’t really see much of the smile by the fire’s glow. I felt it in the air, though. I always know when Joshua’s happy.
“I was just down in the village. I’d rather be here.” I smiled back; he’d know what my words were meant to tell him.
There were five of us looking after the flock, all grown men. Even Reuben’s a grown man, although his mind got stuck in boyhood. Still, he works as hard as any of us, even if he has some funny ideas at times.
“See those three stars?” he said, that cold night up on the hills. “When they come together like that it means there’s going to be a king born. To Judah.”
He overhears things and repeats them, like a child might who’s learning to speak and doesn’t really know what it’s saying. Joshua just gave him a hug and said he hoped he was right.
“Maybe if a king comes he’ll get rid of the Romans.” Aaron spat on the ground, as he always does when he mentions the “heathen, invading scum”.
“Maybe this king will get rid of the law,” Joshua murmured to me.
“Aye. Please God,” I murmured back. My dad always used to say that God wanted mercy, not sacrifice, but when I’d heard the law read I wasn’t so sure. It always seemed skewed against us. The beasts that prey on our lambs don’t observe the Sabbath, so what chance have we got of doing the same?
And there’s one law in particular that sets us apart, me and Joshua, even from the rest of the shepherds with the blood on their hands. The law says we’re unclean on another count, too.
“I’d pledge myself to any king who…” Joshua never got to finish his sentence.
It was the noise we heard first, like a great wind or a flock of huge birds passing overhead. We all looked up—maybe it was geese or something?
“Dear God,” Joshua said. I couldn’t have said anything if my life depended on it; even Aaron was lost for words.
I’d never seen anything like it—a host of the things, bright shining as a hundred stars, with wings like flame.
“What the hell is it?” Joshua’s voice trembled at my side.
“They’re angels.” Reuben alone answered the question.
“Of course!” He looked at us as if we were the daft ones. I’ve seen it before with Reuben; for all that he’s simple, there are times he knows a lot more than any of us. Maybe God favours him with special knowledge because He really loves him. I wasn’t going to argue, anyway.
So these were angels? I once asked my mother what they were like and she said I had to imagine a man with huge wings, as white as a dove’s. I remember asking her if I had to imagine a handsome man—I wonder if she knew then where my heart would eventually lie—and she said an angel would be even more beautiful than Solomon in his prime.
Like my Joshua, I suppose. He’s got a rugged face, but he’s as beautiful as the lilies of the field. He’s strong, although if you saw him with the lambs, he’s as tender as a mother. It’s him and Reuben—Reuben with his slender, maid’s hands—who take care of the lambing while the rest of us keep up an extra special watch for wild beasts.
So when I’ve thought of angels, which isn’t often, I’ve thought of my Joshua. But as God’s my witness, when I saw those things in the sky, they were nothing like him; I’ve never been so scared, although Reuben was elated.
“Listen to them!” He shouted, bouncing on his toes. “Good will. Peace to all men.”
I listened hard and I think he was right about what they said, although their voices were more like a sounding trumpet than some sort of heavenly choir. I did hear something about a king, though. Maybe Reuben and his special stars had been right all along.
“What are they saying about Bethlehem?” Aaron’s voice was raised, trying to get himself heard over the trumpeting.
“We have to go there,” Reuben replied. “There’s a baby in a stable and He’s…” the angels were suddenly silent and only a lingering glow remained to show where they’d been, like the fire lives on in your eyes when you’ve turned from it. “And He’s the new king,” Reuben finished off, with a nod, as if this was all as everyday as the birth of a lamb.
Aaron looked as though he was going to argue, but then he just shrugged. “We’d better go, then.”
I looked at Joshua; his eyes were bright and it seemed like he was watching something far off. “Will we all go?” I asked. I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay out in the open on my own.
“You stay with the flocks, Reuben,” Nahum clapped him on the shoulder. “He won’t be afraid of them,” he mouthed to us.
We knew that them meant the angels. And he had a point, because Reuben was still looking up at the sky, happy as a child, as though he’d been given the greatest gift in the world.
“No,” my Joshua said, in that way he sometimes speaks which makes everyone listen to him. “Reuben deserves to come and see this king as much as any of us. If he’s not allowed to go then none of us should.”
I thought Nahum was going to square up to him—they sometimes fail to see eye to eye—but it looked like nobody had any fight left in them anymore. He just thought for a while, as we all stood around wondering what to do, then said, “You’re right. That message could have been sent just for Reuben, couldn’t it?”
In the end Nahum offered to stay, and he kept his brother Aaron with him. But it clearly wasn’t the wild animals coming back they were concerned about.
So we went to Bethlehem, the three of us, with a lamb to give the baby’s mother. Joshua had it over his shoulders and he sang as we went down the mountain. I think I loved him more then than I’ve ever done. Just as much as my brother Simeon loves his Miriam, although I’ve never been able to tell anyone about it.
Not that I get much of a chance to even tell Joshua what I feel; there’s the flock and the other shepherds around most of the time. But we can be close when we’re round the fire and if the night’s so bitter we’re all huddling for warmth, nobody seems to mind that Joshua always huddles next to me.
Reuben found the stable, like he was drawn there. The baby was in the manger, swaddled up against that bitter night; at least the warmth of the animals helped keep Him warm. His poor mother, just a wee slip of a girl, looked all in. The father—I guess he was a mason or something, from the state of his hands—looked both delighted and puzzled, like all new fathers do.
Joshua gave them the lamb—the poor father looked even more puzzled at that—and then Reuben asked to see the king who’d been born. I wondered how the girl would react, but she just showed us the babe, as though everything made sense to her. He was a lovely little lad, with a fine pair of lungs on him, as we found when the ass started to bray and woke him. I just watched and pondered it all in my heart.
On the way back up the mountain, Reuben was the one singing, trying to produce some human version of what the angels had sung. Joshua was quiet; he slipped his arm through mine but he didn’t seem to want to talk. There was a strange contentment in the air, not least between us.
“They chose a good name for the child,” Joshua said, at last.
“They did. Do you really think he was a king?” I whispered back at him. “In a manger? Why isn’t he in a palace?”
“Ask Reuben,” my Joshua answered. “Maybe he’ll know.”
“I will,” I said, pulling Joshua closer as we walked. “But not now. For the moment I’ll just believe in miracles.”