The shepherds understood babies, and they understood animals. The chilly manger scene made sense.
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Slowly, the angels floated across the sky and disappeared. The shepherds approached each other in the darkness and asked: "What did you see?" "Did you hear as I heard?" "Is it true that the Son of God has come to save the twelve tribes of Israel?" "You are sure that this is not the work of some evil Egyptian magician who would steal our flocks?" They babbled awhile, and one said: "Let us go over to Bethlehem and find out the truth about this thing the Lord has made known to us."
The shepherds came in, the cowls down off their heads. Their hair was long and ringleted, the beards trembled with murmured prayer, the hands were clasped piously before their chests. In the flickering yellow light of the oil lamp, they saw the child-mother, seated on straw. She was looking over the side of an old manger. The men lifted themselves a little on their toes to peer over the sides. Inside was an abundance of white swaddling clothes. An aura of light seemed to radiate from it.
The shepherds were torn between wonderment and happiness. This little baby was God and the Son of God, but he was also a helpless, lovable infant. Their hearts welled with joy and the stern, deeply bronzed faces kept melting into big grins, which were quickly erased as the sheep men recalled that they were in the presence of the King of All Kings.
The scene in a chilly manger, warmed by the bodies and breathing of the animals, was, to the shepherds, closer to their hearts than if the Messiah had come on a big cloud with trumpeting angels. They understood babies, and they understood animals. They murmured with delight that God would see fit to come to earth in an abode only slightly less worthy than their own homes in the hills.
They remained kneeling, clasping and unclasping their hands, and staring at the face of the infant, as though trying to etch on their memories the peaceful scene, the tiny ruddy face, the serenity of the mother, who, by the grace of God, had had her baby without pain. They were men of such poverty and humility that their colored threadbare cloaks spoke more eloquently than their tongues. Their adoration came from full hearts.
If there was any wonderment in Mary's heart, she did not show it. After a while, the shepherds stood and, in the mariner of the Jews, apologized for intruding. They addressed their remarks to Joseph because to speak to Mary would have been immodest. They asked Joseph if he had seen the angels and he said no. They related all that had happened to them in the valley. Joseph shook his head. Mary nodded toward the sleeping baby, as though she and he alone understood that this was only the first of many great world events.
The shepherds left, praising God, and in their joy awakening people to tell them that the promised Messiah had come. Everything, they said, had been revealed exactly as the angel in the sky had said it would be. Most of their audience ordered them to go in peace. Thus, if one can say that the place of birth was small, humble, a place of animals and odors, then one can also say that the first apostles were the most humble and scorned of men.