When the King Came: Stories from the Four Gospels - George Hodges

Shepherds and Singing Angels

Months passed after these angelic visits. The green of spring deepened into the green of summer, and lilies grew in the fields, and the fruits ripened and were gathered into barns, and the cold nights came on. And one night there were shepherds in a pasture close by the town of Bethlehem, watching their flocks.

We seldom see shepherds in this country. The men with sticks who drive sheep through the streets are not true shepherds. Shepherds never drive sheep: they go before and call them, and the sheep know the shepherd's voice and follow him. While the flocks are in the fields, the shepherds stay among them to keep them from straying off and getting lost, and to protect them from wolves and bears in places where such wild animals are found.

There are countries where the grass is green all the year round, and where almost the only snow which the people see is on the tops of the mountains. In such countries the sheep can feed in the fields even in the winter.

In the old time—in the Year One—people when they went to church on great holy days carried little lambs with them. That would seem queer nowadays. Imagine a church where everybody had a lamb under his arm instead of a prayer-book! I am afraid that most small boys, and even some small girls, would find it hard to sit perfectly still in a church full of frisky little woolly lambs. But in those days they were used to it, and did not mind it. The people brought the lambs to give to God. And they brought the very best lambs, because they wished to give God the very best they had. Some of the lambs came from these Bethlehem pastures: and they who took care of the church lambs would be good shepherds, gentle and kind men.

So it was in the winter night, and the stars were shining and all was still, and in the fields the flocks were sleeping while the shepherds watched. We may guess that, as they watched, they talked together and told one another stories; especially about David, who, when he was a boy, had lived at Bethlehem and had lain out many a frosty night in that very pasture with his sheep, and once had killed a lion and a bear. The lion and the bear had come to get the sheep, and young David had fought with them and killed them. And they sang the Shepherd's Psalm, "The Lord is my shepherd." And they spoke of the King of Glory, how he would sometime come, according to the promise; and they wondered how he would look, and what he would do when he came. And they said, "When he comes he will be seen here in Bethlehem." For that was written in the Bible.

Then, as they watched and talked and sang, suddenly something happened.

All at once a great and wonderful light began to shine, brighter and brighter, in the black sky, till the night was like the day. All the clouds came out in the splendid garments which they wear in the early morning and in the late afternoon. And out of the central shining appeared an angel of the Lord, gleaming like a flame of fire. The shepherds fell upon their faces, not daring to look up, hardly daring to listen or to breathe, while the angel spoke. "Fear not," he said, "for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. The King has come! To-night he is born, yonder in Bethlehem. There shall you find him, sleeping in a manger."

And then the sky grew brighter still, as if behind the clouds the gates of heaven itself were swinging open, and out there came angels upon angels, a multitude of the heavenly host, shining and singing. This is what they sang:—

"Glory to God in the highest,

And on earth peace,

Good will toward men!"

Then the chorus ceased, and the choir went back into heaven, shutting the golden gates behind them; and the night was dark and still again, and the shepherds were alone. So up they leaped, crying one to another with great joy, "Let us go to Bethlehem and see! Let us find the King!" And off they went, down the frosty road, their eager feet making a great noise in the silent night and their breath white behind them.

arrival of the shepherds


Now, all that day, travelers had been journeying in unusual numbers along the ways which led to Bethlehem, for it was the time of a census. Cæsar Augustus, emperor of Rome, wished to know how many people were living in that part of the country, so that he could make them all pay taxes. Every man had to go to his own city; that is, to the place in which his family belonged. So there was a great stir all about the land, with men going to this place and to that to have their names written in the census-books. Among the others, out of Nazareth came Joseph the carpenter, because he was of the family of David, and with him Mary, his espoused wife, who was to be the mother of the King. Down they came like other poor folk, over hill and dale, till they arrived at Bethlehem. But when they reached the town there was no place where they might stay. Every house was full of guests, and the inn was already crowded. The only shelter was a stable,—a common stable, strewn with hay, with dusty cobwebs hanging from the rafters, and occupied by cows and donkeys. There, accordingly, they went.

And there, while the angels sang and the sky blazed over the pastures of the sheep, the King came. The King of Glory came! The mighty God, the Maker of all things, the Lord most high, came to dwell among us. And behold, he was a little child. And Mary wrapped him warm in swaddling clothes, as the way is with babies, and laid him in the manger.

There the shepherds, all out of breath with running, found them,—Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And they told what they had seen and heard about the singing angels and the King of Glory, while Mary listened, remembering the angel who had appeared to her. So the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the wonders of that night. Thus was kept the first Christmas, with carols by the choir of heaven, and God's own Son, the Saviour of the world, coming as a Christmas gift for all mankind.