Shepherds (The second of three pre-Christmas Musings) by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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“And there were, in the same country, shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night.”

Shepherding. It seems a simple enough assignment: abide; keep watch; count every so often; if necessary, rescue and protect. Moreover, I imagine the requirements for the job are relatively few: an introspective nature; willingness to withstand dark and chilly nights; maybe the ability to retain a good staff (sorry; couldn’t resist). And yet—however humble—it’s the shepherds who are the strings of the Christmas story. The angels may get the trumpets and players yet to come will have their solos, but it’s the unsung shepherds who stand in for all of hungry humankind—the watchers, the waiters.

The ones on duty that night must surely have been startled out of their slumber. Suddenly, there was an angel delivering a terse message, then suddenly more—“a heavenly host”—joyously singing a preposterous telegram sent from on high about a baby born in a stable who promised nothing less than “Peace on Earth!” Right.

But here’s where the story really gets interesting. The shepherds don’t discount their eyes and ears; they actually go. They pack up, flocks and all, and go down from their lonely hills into that little town of Bethlehem to search out this new-born lamb whom, as the angels foretold, they would find “wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” Maybe it didn’t seem so strange to them after all for who would know more about mangers than a shepherd?

Now, just for a minute, consider the other side of this story. An exhausted new mother, a dazed new father, and a temporarily sleeping baby in this very first nativity still-life. A moment of wondrous peace and quiet after what must have been for all concerned a rather traumatic birth, when all of a sudden, in barge all these strange shepherds with their noisy sheep—“Sssh! Pipe down! Don’t you dare wake that baby!”

“They told us to come.”

“Who told you to come?”

“The angels.”

“What angels?”

“The ANGELS!” (And now the new father looks at the new mother, more dazed and confused than before, and whispers, “You didn’t mention anything about angels…”)

Of course, with all this commotion—this unexpected, fulsome, and noisy intrusion—the baby wakes up but (and maybe this is the true miracle of that night!) “no crying he makes.” And that is the moment a hush falls over the holy tableau, everyone staring at the babe, fully expecting him to squall, but he just blinks back at them, taking them all in as if he knew all along it would be like this. The mother, hair still damp, looks to the father who shrugs and shakes his head and looks from one shepherd to the next hoping one of them will explain to him what the heck is going on here.

As for the shepherds, they are transfixed. For reasons they cannot begin to fathom, they adore this tiny creature. They stare at the baby and at each other in wonder and disbelief. Even their flock is still. Who is ever going to believe this miraculous night back up on the hillside?

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” will be released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

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