Seventeen days in, and the tide has officially turned. After 400 years of nothing but the memory of ancient promises and a never-ending wait for deliverance, an old man met an angel and a young girl became pregnant. On their own, these two events may have seemed small and rather insignificant, but then – to paraphrase a common saying – all Heaven broke loose.
Imagine it for a moment:
The night is dark and perhaps a bit cool with the slight dampness of the midnight hour. The world is quiet. A gentle wind rustles the branches of nearby trees and sighs through the grasses before brushing softly against your cheek. Now and then a soft bleat can be heard from one of the sheep on the hillside, but no other sounds break the stillness of the night.
You know that the village lies just beyond the next hill, but it can’t be seen from here. It has been livelier than normal for the past few weeks with travellers arriving from all over the land, but now – in the middle of the night – all is calm.
You stretch your shoulders, stiff from the constant effort of watching the shadows for signs of predators. The people in the village may be asleep, but your job is to keep the sheep safe from wolves and other things with sharp teeth that come hunting in the dead of night. You grip your staff a bit tighter at the thought, remembering last night’s encounter. You won that one, but it would be nice to have a more restful time tonight. You scan the shadows at the edge of the trees again, looking for a telltale glint of eyes in the dark, but nothing appears.
And then – LIGHT.
Warm golden light bursts forth before you, forcing you to your knees with the blinding brightness. You drop your staff to shield your eyes, hearing the cries of surprise from your fellow shepherds scattered across the hill. This light is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. It is warm but not hot, and brilliantly bright but . . . you slowly realize that you can see, that this light does not hurt your eyes.
You blink and lower your sheltering arm, peering into the source of the glow. A man stands there, and the glow seems to come from both within and around him.
What sort of man can appear without warning and produce his own light? Heart pounding, you pat the grass around you, feeling for your dropped staff. Your fingers touch wood and you grip it, swinging it up in your best defensive move.
The man holds out a hand and you freeze. “Peace.” His voice is deep and somehow soothing, and you lower your staff a bit. “Don’t be afraid. I’m not here to hurt you. I’m here to give you a message, one that is for everyone – even you.”
You lower your staff even more, your jaw dropping as you listen to his message. You may be a mere shepherd, but even you know the old stories. You know about the prophet called Isaiah, and about the promised messiah, and about the sign of the girl who will have a child.
And now this man is saying that the sign has appeared. A girl in the village below has had a child.
Before you can say anything, the light explodes into even brighter radiance, and voices surround you with sound, wonderful voices ringing out praise to God Most High in joyful tones. People are everywhere, even blocking out the stars above you, and they fill the silent hills with their praise. It is loud, but somehow it is not noisy. It seems to fill the air and wrap you in joy, and you want it to go on and on forever…
And then they are gone. Darkness settles back down upon the hills, and silence fills your ears once again. And you know that you have to go and see for yourself if there truly was a child born that night. Because if there was . . . well, Isaiah did say that the sign of the deliverer of the promise would be a girl giving birth to a baby.
And yes, there had been many babies born since then, but did any of them arrive with such beautiful light?
You’re not a priest, but you are not dumb, either. And as you gather the other shepherds and hurry across the hills toward the village, you can’t help thinking that maybe – just maybe – this means that the promised Messiah has finally come…
I’m writing my own Advent readings this year and sharing them here in case they interest anyone else. Feel free to read along, but please remember that I’m no theologian – just an expat American who reads poetry and epic stories and sees the world accordingly.
If this is your first reading, you can start at the beginning here.