The shepherds understood babies, and they understood animals. The chilly manger scene made sense.
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The people of the town scorned the shepherds. They were wanderers. They had no roots. They seldom married and, when they did, they stripped the soil from the hillsides, exposing the soft white rock beneath. The men carved apartments in these hills, and raised their families remote from the towns.
Some were dozing, a few were watching, when the deep night sky was split with light. It was brighter than day, more like staring at a noon sun, and the sleeping shepherds awakened and, in fear, hid their eyes in the folds of their garments. After a moment, the intense light faded, and an angel appeared in bodily form, standing in air over the valley.
The herders were terrified and their sheep began to run in tight circles. "Do not fear;" the angel said slowly, and the words seemed to echo off both sides of the valley of Bethlehem. Some of the men took heart and looked up. Some did not. "Listen," the angel said, "I bring you good news of great joy which is in store for the whole nation."
Good news? This would make any Jew open his eyes and lift them to the skies. They had been afraid of the justice and vengeance of God for centuries. They had worshiped carefully, with respect for all of the nuances of ritual, for fear that God might be displeased and visit unhappiness upon their people. Now-good news?
They looked up hopefully and the angel spoke again. The voice seemed to permeate the valley. "A savior," the angel said, "who is the Lord Messias, was born to you today in David's town. And this will serve you as a token: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and cradled in a manger."
The shepherds repeated the words. "A savior ... Lord Messias ... David's town ... infant in a manger." There was nothing frightening in that news. The angel had spoken correctly. It was good news. It was better than good news. It was the long-awaited news. It was the thing which had been promised by God a long time ago. It was the advent of him who would save the people of the world.
They were still dwelling on the wonders of God and his works when the angel was joined by hundreds of others, who appeared brightly in the night sky, and began to sing in a heavenly chorus:
"Glory to God in the heavens above,
and on earth peace to men of good will."