In this imaginative retelling of the Nativity story, shepherds from nearby hills come to honor the Christ child. Excerpted from The Day Christ Was Born with permission of HarperSanFrancisco.

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."

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.

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