The Night The Angels Sang
If you are surprised to find a shepherd from twenty centuries past standing in this place tonight, then be assured that I am much more surprised than you. I never, ever expected to be standing in such a holy place. You see, shepherds in first century Palestine actually had no standing in the community, particularly the religious community. Shepherds were not even permitted to darken the door of the temple. So I never, ever expected to find myself standing in a place known as the “house of the Lord”. Ah, but then you know, my life has been filled with surprises ever since the night the angels sang. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not ashamed of being a shepherd. Not at all, in fact, there is actually an element of honor associated with it, particularly if one is a shepherd at Bethlehem. You see, the flocks which belong to the temple in Jerusalem- those sheep were kept in the hills around the little town of Bethlehem. And the temple flocks were always regarded as the finest sheep in the land. Consequently, the temple authorities would hire only the best shepherds to tend those flocks. At age 18, I am proud to say, I was chosen to be one of those shepherds. I know it seems strange that while shepherds were never allowed to worship in the temple, the temple authorities, nevertheless, would seek out only the best shepherds to tend the flocks. I know it doesn’t make much sense to you, but that’s the way it was back then. The bottom line is that I was ecstatic to be chosen as one of the temple shepherds in Bethlehem. It was a great honor and it was a great job- at least as far as shepherds jobs go. True, it didn’t have much in the way of rewards, except… well, I remember the day I took my little brother out to the hills around Bethlehem for the first time.
But maybe I’d better explain to you about my little brother. He’s actually my brother by adoption. He started out in life with a lot of things working against him. He didn’t have much of a chance it seemed, until my parents adopted him. In our family he found new hope and I loved him dearly. It was always my hope that sooner or later my little brother would become one of the Bethlehem shepherds as well. I knew that was a hope which would not be fulfilled easily, because when my little brother was born, he was born without the ability to hear. Because he could not hear, he was never able to develop the ability to speak. He couldn’t form words. Oh, he could communicate. He used a very simple language of the hands, but he couldn’t speak with his mouth. A lot of people would regard what happened to my little brother as being a terrible tragedy, but he didn’t see it that way. I suppose it was the power of his personality that kept us in the family from ever regarding his life as being a tragedy. In fact, it seemed to me that his physical limitations had so sharpened his mind and his spirit that he actually possessed a wisdom far greater than my own. Even though all he could speak was the language of the hands, it always seemed to me that he had a strong grip on what was true. I saw that so clearly the day I took him for the first time out onto the Bethlehem hills. We climbed up together to the top of the highest of those hills. It was a wonderful sight! You could see the horizon in every direction and as we looked around. I was silent for a few moments and then I said to my little brother: “God’s love-SO BIG-SO BIG!” My little brother didn’t reply at first. He just stood there for a moment and then very slowly he made a full 360 -degree turn, looking out to the horizon in every direction. Suddenly he smiled and his hands spelled out the reply: “AHA! Then we are right in the middle of it.” He was right. We were right in the middle of it. I know that from my experience as a shepherd out on those hillsides. You just had the feeling that you were in the middle of God’s love. When you’re out so many times at night where the only roof you have over your head is the night sky and a canopy full of stars, you begin to have a sense of the awesome power of God. I think that’s why shepherds are always so close to God. And I think that’s why shepherds seem able to hear the whispers of God in their hearts better than other people do. That was certainly true out on the hillsides the night the angels sang.
I guess I have to admit to you that on that particular night we weren’t thinking about angels. As a matter of fact, angels were the farthest thing from our minds. No, our thoughts that night were more focused on the darkness of evil than the light of angels. We were living in tough times. It was the Romans, it was always the Romans. They had conquered our country. They were not as cruel and murderous as they might have been, but they kept reminding us that we existed for their benefit only. And they made our life miserable in every way they could. Only occasionally did they resort to violence to keep us in line. Usually they accomplished the same thing by taxing us to the point of the absurd- and we hated them for it! That night out on the hillsides, we could look out into the distance and you could see the flickering of the sentry fires where the Roman soldiers had encamped around the little town of Bethlehem. And I want to tell you those flickering fires seemed to me to be snickering at us and sneering at us and making fun of us. Oh, we hated them! I remember turning to my brother and saying that there was no hope for us.
Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever felt that things were hopeless and that God didn’t seem to care?
(Shepherd and sheep, Holy Family enter- soft light on Holy Family)
That’s the way we felt the night the angels sang. I must tell you, though, that’s not the way my brother felt. He didn’t see things as hopeless at all. He tugged on my sleeve and spoke with his hands, “God will help us.” Somehow, he sensed what the rest of us missed. At that very moment God was moving into our lives so silently and so secretly that we weren’t even aware of it.
That’s what the angels told us that night. They said “God is coming into the world and when God comes into the world then God’s children will never be defeated.” Oh, that was music to our ears all right. The angels also told us what we were to do. I called to my brother and to the other shepherds telling them to secure the sheep safely so that we could go down into town. We managed to gather up our flock and place them in a cave where they could be safe for awhile. My brother signaled that there was one lamb that refused to go into the cave. I said that we would just bring him with us. We made our way down into town, down to the stable. The angels had told us that we would find a manger and a newborn child. Sure enough, it was just as the angel had said. My brother and I and our wayward lamb approached the mother and the father. She was holding the baby in her arms. I remember looking down at that child. I didn’t understand what it all meant. I mean, I couldn’t possibly understand how that little head so round and soft and smooth one day would be scarred by thorns. I couldn’t understand how those tiny little fingers so red and wrinkled from birth would one day be red with blood and pierced by nails. I couldn’t understand how the rough boards of a manger would one day be as nothing compared to the coarse callousness of an ugly wooden cross. I didn’t understand all of that that night and I wasn’t there thirty years later when those tiny little feet, now grown walked the Via Dolla Rosa, the way of sorrows all alone. But remember how I told you that my brother always seemed to grasp things more quickly than I? Well, that night as we left the stable and headed back to the hills, my brother, speaking with his hands said: “I have seen the king.” You could have fooled me. I couldn’t see how that stable-born baby could be a king. I didn’t understand at all, at least not until later than night after we returned to watching our sheep under the night sky. It was then that I heard the singing again… not a whole chorus of angels this time, just a single voice. At first I wasn’t sure I heard it, but then I listened more carefully and sure enough I heard the word: “What can I bring him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd I’d give him a lamb. If I were a wiseman I’d do my part. But what can I give him. I give him my heart. That night, out on the Bethlehem hills, I did just that. I gave him my heart.”
(Black out. Sheep and Holy Family exit. Spotlight back on me center stage.)
Several years later my brother died. One night during another bleak mid-winter we were tending the flocks near Bethlehem. Suddenly a winter storm blew in- fierce- no warning. As the wind began to roar and the rain began to pour, the sheep panicked and ran. My brother and I separated in a desperate effort to round them up. After awhile as the storm roared on and the temperature plummeted I realized that I needed to find my brother. I searched and searched and called and called, knowing all the while he could not hear me call his name. When the morning light came, I knew that hope was gone. Two days later we found his body. There was no life left in him. But there was just a trace of a smile frozen on that now lifeless face. I didn’t understand that until I bent down to pick up his body. Then I saw what to you would have meant nothing, but to me meant the world. I saw that his hands were… well, his left hand was grasping the little finger of his right hand and his hands were frozen by death in that position. I knew instantly what that meant. You see, my little brother had been able to learn only one of the Psalms of David but he would repeat that Psalm over and over again. He couldn’t say the words out loud, of course, but I always knew when he was saying the words to himself because he would always tick the words off on his fingers. So I knew that in the last moment of his life, my brother was saying: “The Lord is my shepherd.”
Let us pray.