I kneel at the manger, the cold stone of the cave-turned-stable seeping through the fabric of my tunic.
I cannot take my eyes off the baby lying there, wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, just like any other baby would be.
He stares back at me with fathomless, knowing eyes.
But then his eyelids drift closed as a yawn overtakes his tiny mouth.
I am overcome.
Overwhelmed by the events of this night.
It had been such a regular evening!
The sheep had been counted and were asleep in the pen.
I had been assigned the second watch, in the deepest hours of the night and not long after my sister shook me awake, I had simply been staring at the sky, counting the stars in an effort to stay awake.
But the next thing I knew, we were ALL awake! Us, the sheep, the entire hillside, awakened by the light.
Where there had been stars just seconds before, suddenly there was the brightest being I have ever seen, glowing from the inside out as we cowered on the ground, terrified. I could not bear to look at the brightness but I also could not bear to look away!
And then a voice came from the brilliance, thundering, “Don’t be afraid! I come with good news – news that will bring you great joy!”
As I stare at the sleeping baby, I think back to that moment. Sheer terror mixed with palpable relief. I have believed in angels all of my life – but I cannot say I ever wanted to see one face to face!
But then the angel continued.
“To you is born this very day in the City of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
I remember the thoughts racing.
A shepherd? Not old enough to shave more than once a week. Barely old enough to care for the sheep.
On a hillside in the middle of the night?
Surrounded by sheep?
To me is born a Savior?
The Christ – the Messiah we have been waiting for?
This can’t be true!
But then the angel continued, just as if he had read my mind.
“This will be the sign for you. You will find the baby swaddled in cloth and lying in a manger.”
I remember the shock as his words sunk into my beleaguered brain.
The Messiah, the Savior, the One we have been waiting for, would be found in a manger? A feed trough? I only know of one place where mangers are found – and that is in stables.
With animals. And hay. And dirt.
But before I could mull that over, suddenly the light intensified. It was so brilliant we could hardly bear it! Where there had been one angel, suddenly there were too many to count! And until the day I die, I will hear their song in my head and in my heart. “Glory to God in the highest! And peace on earth to men with whom He is pleased!”
And then they were gone.
In an instant.
Just like they came suddenly, the night went back to blackness suddenly.
We turned to each other, speechless for a moment.
And then we all started talking at once.
“Did that just happen?”
“In a manger? Like in a stable?”
“The Messiah! He’s come!”
“Do you think the angels went to the wrong spot? Maybe they didn’t realize we’re just shepherds?”
But even in the midst of our confusion and our excitement, we were already on the move, packing up our meager belongings and dousing the fire. We rounded up the sheep, who were also wide awake, and started moving them as quickly as we could towards Bethlehem. In an unspoken agreement, we realized that none of us was willing to stay behind to watch them so they had to come with us.
And now, here we are.
Crowded around a manger.
In a barn. With our sheep milling just outside.
Looking at a sleeping newborn.
He looks so ordinary.
Like every other newborn baby I have ever seen. Reddish face, wrinkled skin. So ordinary!
And perhaps that is good.
Because we are certainly ordinary ourselves.
Nothing special here.
Just common, hard-working, smelly shepherds, looking out for common, stubborn, foolish sheep.
I wonder why God chose to tell us first?
And why was the Messiah born here of all places?
It seems so wrong, even to us.
Shouldn’t the Messiah have been born in a palace?
Or at least a rich man’s home?
Shouldn’t he have a proper bed instead of a feed trough?
Shouldn’t his first visitors be the High Priest or the Ruling Council?
Or perhaps even King Herod himself?
But I cannot doubt the angels’ words.
I heard them with my own ears.
“For unto YOU is born this day…”
I look at his mother, propped up beside the manger on a stack of hay with a cloak thrown over it. Her hand rests on the baby’s tummy as if she is unwilling to be separated from him for even a moment. I can see in her face the weariness and stress of having given birth such as short time ago. And yet she is smiling, a weary, soft, thinking smile.
I whisper, “Um, the angels didn’t tell us his name. What will you call him?”
And she softly replies, “His name is Jesus. But my husband says his nickname will be Immanuel.”
Jesus. Meaning one who saves. The angel did give us his name!
But then the second name sinks into my overwhelmed mind.
Immanuel. God with us.
God in the flesh.
Not in a cloud like He was when He led my ancestors through the wilderness.
Not in a consuming fire with thunder and an earthquake like He was when He gave our people the law at Mt. Sinai.
Not behind the veil of the temple in a place where only the High Priest can go – and only then just once a year.
In a place I understand.
In a form I can touch.
In circumstances so similar to my own.
Immanuel. God with me.
I am nobody.
So unimportant that my only value is hanging out with sheep.
But suddenly, in a moment, I am somebody.
Because I am with Immanuel, the Savior.
And God is with me.
“…it was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters, so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God. Then he could offer a sacrifice that would take away the sins of the people. Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested…This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.”
(Hebrews 2:17-18 and Hebrews 4:15)