Friday 25 December 2015

The Holy Night: a story for Christmas Day

It was the middle of the night when the man came trudging through the streets of the town of
Bethlehem. His wife had just given birth, but the only place they had been able to find to stay that night was a cave used as an animal shelter, just outside the village. The cave was out of the wind, but it was cold, very cold, and they had nowhere to lay the baby but the trough where the animal food was kept, cut out of the rock. The man knew that his wife and the child needed the warmth of a fire, but in those days there were no matches or lighters. You had to use flints and tinder – dry grass or bark - but the man had neither. The wood he had gathered was far too damp to light easily, even if he could have made a spark to set it going. He knew that what he needed were some glowing embers of burning wood from someone else’s fire. If only he had those, he could start a fire and his wife and child would be warm and dry.

Surely someone would let him have just a little of their fire. He knocked at every door, but it was very late, and no one was going to get up and answer the door to this stranger. No one would help. Eventually he came out of the other side of the village. He had tried the last house, but without any luck. He was about to turn back to the cave when he noticed high on the hillside beyond the village the light of a small fire, burning in the open. “It must be a shepherd,” he thought. “Who else would be outside on a night like this? I will ask him for some fire.”

So he began to trek up the hillside towards the light of the fire.

What he didn’t know, though, was that this particular shepherd was just about the most bad-tempered man who had ever walked the earth. He’d never done a kind thing for anyone, and he never intended to.

So when he saw someone coming up the hill towards him, heading straight for him, he wasn’t at all pleased. “Bah! Someone coming to disturb me, probably wanting something for nothing! Well, we’ll soon see about that!”

The shepherd had three sheepdogs, not gentle pets, but fierce great animals. He needed them to guard the flock from wolves and bears – and robbers too – so they were trained to be fierce and merciless. He whistled, and they sprang up straight away. He pointed at the man coming up the hill, and whistled again. This was their signal. They started running down the hill towards him, their great mouths open and their sharp teeth glinting in the moonlight. “That should get rid of him!” thought the shepherd.” But as they drew near to him a strange thing happened. The dogs slowed to a walk, shut their mouths and sat down at his feet, their tails wagging at him as he patted them on their heads.

“What is going on? ” said the shepherd to himself “Who is this, that the dogs don’t bite him? Well, I shall have to think of something else!” As the man got closer, the shepherd picked up the stick he always kept by his side to fight off the wild beasts. It was sharpened to a point, and heavy. He drew back his arm, aimed and let it go. It hurtled towards the man, and the shepherd watched it, grinning to himself. But just as the stick was about to hit the man it swerved off to one side and fell onto the grass. “How can this be? The dogs don’t bite him and the stick won’t beat him,” said the shepherd. “I don’t understand at all.”

The man drew closer, walking right through the middle of the flock  but instead of scattering as they usually would when a stranger approached, the sheep didn’t stir at all as the man came past them.  “The dogs don’t bite him, the stick doesn’t beat him, the sheep don’t run from him. Whatever is happening?”

By now the man was standing on the other side of the shepherd’s fire. “I wonder if you could help me” he asked. “No, go away! Whatever it is you’re asking for, the answer’s no!”
“Please, I beg you,” the man said. “My wife has just had a baby, and we have nowhere to stay but the cave where the animals shelter, and no bed to put the child in but a rock-cut manger. It is so cold, and we have no fire. Could you give me just a few glowing embers from your fire, so that we can start our own?”

The shepherd was about to refuse and chase the man off when he noticed something. The man had no bucket or shovel, nothing to carry the fire in, even if he gave it to him. The fool! Fancy him not thinking about that! It would be a good laugh to see him realise that he’d come all that way for nothing. “Go on then,” said the shepherd, “help yourself!”

But as he watched – don’t try this at home! – the man stretched out his hand towards the fire – don’t try this at home – and picked up some red hot glowing embers – please don’t try this at home! – and wrapped them in his woollen cloak. You’re really not going to try this at home, are you?

The shepherd waited for the man to cry out in pain, or for his cloak to catch fire, but the man was unhurt, no more troubled than if he was handling apples or stones.  

The shepherd was astonished. “What kind of night is this that the dogs don’t bite you, the stick doesn’t beat you, the sheep don’t run from you and the fire doesn’t burn you? How does it happen that everything seems to show you compassion and love this night?”

“If you don’t know, “answered the man, “then I’m afraid I can’t tell you; it is something you have to see with your own eyes to understand.” And the man turned away and began to walk down the hill again.

The shepherd gawped after him. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he thought to himself, and straightaway he decided that he had to know more. So he picked up the sheepskin fleece he used as a blanket, wrapped it round his shoulders and set off after the man, following at a distance so that he didn’t know he was there.  

Through the streets of Bethlehem he followed the man and right out of the other end of the village. By the time he got to the cave the man had already got the fire going, using the embers from the shepherd’s fire, and by the glow of the firelight the shepherd could see the mother, cradling her child in her arms. He watched her stand up and go towards the rock cut manger, cold and rough to lay the child in it. And suddenly something in his hard heart softened. 

“No, wait!” he said, stepping into the cave. The mother and father looked up at him, puzzled. “That manger is far too rough and cold for a baby! Here, take this.” And he took the sheepskin fleece from his own shoulders, and laid it in the manger for the baby to lie on, wrapping it over him and tucking it in. He didn’t know why. It was the first kind thing he could ever remember doing. But he could see the tears of relief in the mother’s eyes, and the smile on the father’s face, and the child starting to relax into sleep, and he was glad.

And as he looked at them, he noticed something strange. It was only out of the corner of his eye at first – a glimmer of light, the swish of wings, the faint sound of singing. But he looked again and suddenly realised that all around the little family, filling the cave, were angels, great shiny, shimmery angels. And up in the sky outside the cave there were more; and filling the hillsides too. Angels everywhere, singing, “Glory to God. His son has been born to show us his love and to bring us his peace.” And the shepherd knew that it was so. The child had shown him the love that was in his own heart, love he didn’t know he had. Love had been kindled in him that night, just as the fire had been kindled in the cave. And he fell to his knees and thanked God for opening his eyes to see this wonder.

And let us pray that our eyes are opened too by the love that we share, so that we can see God at work, not just on Christmas Day but every day.

My retelling of a Swedish legend, “The holy night”, from “Christ Legends” by Selma Lagerlรถf 1858-1940

No comments:

Post a Comment