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“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night,” the Bible story goes, the first part of Luke’s narrative to talk about regular people’s reaction to the birth of Christ. Until this passage, the story mainly talks about Mary, Joseph, angels and emperors. And while angels figure in this part of the story, the shepherds were just ordinary people present for an extraordinary event, minding their own business on a starry night.
I have a vague memory of a children’s Bible with an illustration of the lands around Bethlehem – something I looked at while I was supposed to be listening to my Sunday School teacher – and in my dimming memory, I somehow remembered the hills around Bethlehem looking a lot like the hills around here.
The photo, if I remember correctly, was of present-day Bethlehem (or perhaps the early 1950’s Bethlehem), a black and white photo that had been hand-colored and then printed, a graven image modified with approximations of color to represent a holy place, an image strained through several assumptions yet presented as fact.
As a child, I thought the land around Bethlehem looked like Kerr County. I was wrong.
A friend who’s visited Bethlehem tells me the similarities really end with the elevation – both our area and Bethlehem are about the same height above sea level – but most of the other features of the two places are quite different.
Bethlehem sits on a plateau of sorts only a few miles from Jerusalem. There is no river flowing like a curved arm through the center of town. Hills are in the distance – toward Jerusalem – unlike here, where our towns are nestled in the midst of hills, like a lamb in a manger. The soil around Bethlehem, though rocky, is rich enough to grow various grains, while here, other than hay, we produce few farm products.
It is a rather foreign place, actually.
Still, I can understand why, as a child, I hoped our town was like Bethlehem: there are so many parts of the story with which we want to identify, to make our own, to understand through the well-loved lens of our own experience.
I’m sure for many years I believed the shepherds were kids about my age, wearing robes and fabric remnants on their heads, approximating Eastern dress, as I had seen in Church pageants. I once played a shepherd; baby Jesus was a blue-eyed doll wrapped in swaddling clothes. I knew they’d speak the same King James English we spoke in the play. I knew they were sore afraid, just like we were before the audience.
“Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us,” the story goes.
It’s funny to me (and perhaps only me) how much of this familiar story we’ve translated into “American,” not that there’s anything wrong with that. Like most matters of faith, we work hard to place the story in a framework we understand. It’s hard to pull the ‘Hallmark’ image of the nativity out of our minds – when the actual event may have been simpler, plainer, and much more humble. I doubt the scene was as Raphael might have painted it, especially the brightly-colored clothes. Plain people, plain setting: that’s my opinion.
I wonder how our own town would handle the birth of a king these days, a child born to a young couple from out of town, a child born in a barn behind a guest house, a child asleep in a feeding trough, wrapped in swaddling clothes.
I doubt we’d have noticed the couple or the event. Even the shepherds might have missed it had an army of angels not announced it. The shepherds, like us, were so busy with their routines, working late into the night, on deadline; the mere birth of a Saviour nearby might have gone unnoticed.
“Glory to God in the highest,” the army of angels said, “and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.”
Not a bad thing for the busy shepherds to hear, actually. Angels filled the sky with a message of praise and hope, and the shepherds were smart enough to listen and act upon what they heard, even though they were busy and had work to do.
I hope your Christmas is peaceful and holy.
Until next week, all the best.
Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who has almost all of his Christmas shopping done. This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times December 19, 2015.