They lay in a rough circle around the remains of their dying campfire - crude, home-made bows and slingshots lay by their sides, with a few strategically placed cairns of fist-sized rocks. Nothing discouraged the wild-dogs preying on the flock like a well-hurled rock to the ribs. Each of them had a place to hide away these weapons when the Roman soldiers came up their hill, looking to steal from them a mutton dinner, still on the hoof.
Far below, on the Jerusalem road, lay Bethlehem, the Town of Bread. Usually a quiet, sleepy place, tonight it had been loud and raucous, stuffed to overflowing by travelers. All through their lower grazing lands in by the town, fires twinkled from hastily assembled campsites.
This was a cold, clear night - the coldest of the winter season so far. A new, incredibly bright star hung in the sky over the town. It shone with a blueish light bright enough to cast a slight shadow when they moved away from their campfire on their rounds around the flock. Surely this was a nine-days wonder, appearing over the town just this evening - a new star, something that had not happened in the memory of even the oldest of them.
They were rough and ready men, living and working in the field all year long, sleeping in the grass and washing in the (too infrequent) rain. But, they were employed, when so many were forced to beg for their bread. And every one of them was instantly ready to tell the story of that *other* shepherd from their town - the one who had gone on to be the greatest warrior and king the world had ever known.
The youngest of them drew the middle watch that night. He sat huddled in his cloak, and wrapped in blankets, looking down over the town and at the strange, bright new star. In the clear air he heard the faint cry of a baby coming from below.
And, there, in the dark, a man stood next to him.
"Yeahhh", he cried, throwing off his blankets and springing up, a rock already in his strong hand. Behind him he heard the others, instantly awake and alert for some threat to their flocks.
"Be not afraid!", said the stranger.
The shepherd could not see the stranger's face - just the outline of his shape, silhouetted against the light from the new star, but his voice was strangely comforting; nothing like a thief or a soldier's voice.
"Be not afraid!", he repeated. "For I bring you tidings of great joy, for you, and for all on whom God's favor rests. For to you is born in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord!"
As the stranger spoke, the sky behind him, all around the star, grew brighter, and brighter. The young one summoned his courage, and asked the stranger, "A Savior? The Christ? The anointed one? But how shall we know him?"
"This shall be the sign for you", the stranger replied. "You will find the babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laying in manger."
At this, the sky, unable to hold back the infinite joy of heaven, was split in two over the shepherds. Too afraid to move, or even fall on the ground, they watched the very flood-tide of heaven spill over the sky. Stars, faint and twinkling the moment before, blazed forth with unspeakable brilliance. And in front of, and around, and between each star was a myriad of angels, dancing and singing in joy, clothed in more colors than the world can contain.
The power of their song echoed back and forth across the hills, filling the valleys, and spilling out over the plains and deserts - and the angels sang,
Gloria! Gloria in Excelsis Deo! Glory to God in His Highest Heaven!
and on Earth, Peace! Peace to men of goodwill!
After a while, the overflowing river of light, and sound, and joy began to flow back into its normal, heavenly banks. The sky grew quieter, and darkened once again, although the new star shone brighter than ever. But it seemed to the shepherds that the echo of that song could still be faintly heard, coming back ever more quietly from the hills around the town. And for each of them (although they never mentioned it to each other) it was true that on later nights throughout the whole of their long lives a faint echo of that song could be heard, if only they became quiet enough.
When it was fully dark, they realized that the man (if, indeed, he had been a man) who had spoken with them had departed with the angels, and they were alone. Their fear was gone with the joy of the song they had heard, and seen, and felt. Drawing lots, they selected one of their number to remain with the flocks, and the rest ran down the hill towards the town, following the herd-trails they used to bring the sheep for water, morning and evening.
They pelted through the make-do camps the travelers had set up in the fields around the town, shouting the good news and the message of the angels behind them as they ran. Just as they reached the edge of the town, once again the youngest heard the cry of a baby. "This way! This way!", he shouted, and sprinted to the front of the pack, leading them toward the cry.
There, at the very edge of the town, they found a cave, with a wooden fence surrounding its entrance. The small yard in front of the cave entrance was brightly lit by the star, directly overhead, and they heard once more the small, crying sound of a newborn infant.
And suddenly, they became shy, as rough men will do in the presence of newborns, and gentlewomen, and Kings. But a voice within the cave, a fine, young woman's voice, called out to them.
"Come! Come and see!", she said.
And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, "Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!"