By Tom Mangan
The night air was still and cold and Matthew sat close to the fire, his woollen cloak pulled tight across his shoulders. One hand idly stroked the old sheepdog that dozed between his feet and the flickering yellow flames. The dog’s slow breath fogged in the chilly air.
I should also be sleeping, he told himself. The sheep must be moved downhill, closer to Bethlehem, at dawn and the way will be tricky. Loose rocks and steep inclines need agility and he wasn’t as young as he used to be. But sleep eluded him. His final, acrimonious conversation with his only son, John, cycled endlessly in his mind.
“I won’t be a shepherd in this in this God forsaken place!” John had shouted at him. “I want more from life…I need more!”
Each word had struck deep into Matthew’s heart. It was right that a man’s son should follow after him, should carry his blood and his name into the future. And being a shepherd was a noble calling.
“We have always been shepherds,” he told John patiently. “My father and his father before him – it’s what we are. As will you be…!”
Anger had flashed in John’s dark eyes. “Look around you!” he cried. “What have sheep given us? Nothing but a poor house in a poor town! The merchants laugh behind our backs. They take our wool and give us little in return. But I want more!”
Matthew shook his head sadly as he looked at his son, tall and strong and filled with the passion of youth. In the dim light that filtered through the small window of their home he was no longer a boy. He was a man now, Matthew realised, with the strength and the courage to challenge his father.
“The world isn’t easy,” he argued. “Where would you go?”
“I’ll go to Jerusalem, or to Hebron. Somewhere that doesn’t smell of sheep!”
“And will you beg in the streets?”
“Don’t laugh at me, father. I’m strong, I’m not afraid of hard work. I won’t have to beg.”
Matthew persisted. “The grass isn’t sweeter in far away fields, John. Life is hard… many go hungry and perish. Stay here… this is your home.”
But John refused to back down. “It’s too late, father. I’ve made up my mind.”
“Will you leave your mother without her son?” Matthew asked him.
John glanced towards the hearth, to where his mother sat, her eyes downcast, twisting wool with practised fingers. Her movement faltered for an instant as if she felt his eyes on her. But she said nothing; she would not interfere in the argument between father and son.
Later, perhaps, she would take John aside and beseech him to obey his father…as she had previously. But their quarrels had become more common – would she still have that opportunity?
“A son must leave his mother sometime,” John said.
“Not like this. When you have a woman of your own, perhaps, but not like this.”
“And what woman will tie herself to a poor shepherd? What kind of woman will accept this life…?” John stopped suddenly, realising too late the hurt that his words would cause. Tears welled in his mother’s eyes as she looked up and he felt a sudden shame. He wanted to throw himself at her feet, to tell her he was sorry, to say that he loved her. But pride and resentment swelled in his mind.
“I will never be a shepherd!” he shouted. Then he ran from the house and the silence he left behind was as cold as the wind that swirled through the open door.
For three days Matthew looked for his son. He asked for him in the inns and in the places where the young men congregated, but nobody admitted to having seen him. The narrow streets of Bethlehem were bustling with trade as strangers gathered for the Roman census. Food vendors and hawkers, beggars, thieves and swindlers accosted him and made his search more difficult. Each night he returned home and ate a silent meal while his wife grieved for her missing son, and he was unable to comfort her.
But Matthew was still a shepherd and sheep know nothing of human quarrels. Food is scarce in winter and hungry predators become bold. The flock needed him. So he had returned to the hills without his son. Now he huddled by the little fire, unable to sleep, his mind filled with regret and thoughts of what he might have said, what he might have done.
Above his head a falling star inscribed a fiery line across the sky. A soul passing from this world to the next, his father had told him once as they shared a lonely vigil. Will I ever again share these moments with my son, he asked himself wretchedly? Or will he see a star fall and wonder if I have passed?
Close to his feet, the old sheepdog suddenly raised his head and growled a warning. At the same time Matthew heard a sound from higher up the hill. Pebbles rattled, leather creaked. His heart leaped. John is here…he has come back.
He climbed stiffly to his feet and turned to greet him. But it wasn’t his son. Dimly he made out a tall hooded figure leading a donkey on which a second figure sat. They moved slowly in the moonlight, the leading figure guiding the animal carefully through the flock of sleeping sheep. “We mean you no harm,” the figure called out as they approached.
When they came close to the fire the tall man threw back the hood of his coarse cloak and reached out his hand. “God be with you,” he said. “My name is Joseph and this is Mary, my wife.” Moonlight silvered his beard and long hair; his eyes were hidden in shadow. “We’ve walked a long distance. We lost the trail for Bethlehem a while back and we need to rest. Perhaps you will be kind enough to give us some water and then show us the correct direction?”
“God be with you too,” Matthew replied, clasping Joseph’s hand. “I’m named Matthew. Come! Come to my fire and rest. You’re welcome to share what I have.”
He pushed fresh wood into the fire and rummaged in his pack while Joseph helped his wife down from the donkey. When Matthew looked back he was surprised to see that the woman was heavily pregnant. She moved awkwardly, leaning on her husband and cradling her swollen belly with both hands. Joseph guided her to the fire and she groaned as she sank gratefully to the ground. Immediately the dog went to her, whimpering with delight, his tail sweeping the sandy ground. He pressed against her and laid his head in her lap.
“Come away Abi!” Matthew went to drive the dog back but Mary stopped him with a gesture.
“Let him be,” she said softly. “He wishes only to give me warmth.”
Her scarf fell back from her face as she looked up and he was surprised at how young she was, scarcely older than his son, John. The pale moonlight also picked out deep hollows beneath her eyes and harsh lines of pain on her forehead. She looked far too young and weak to be here in the bleak winter hills.
Matthew held out the flatbread his wife had baked and a jar of soft cheese. “I have little comfort.” he apologised, embarrassed at the meagreness of his offering.
Mary smiled as she accepted the food. “It is more than enough.”
“We won’t stay long,” Joseph added as he tended to the donkey. “We have come from Nazareth for the census. We’ve been walking for six days. Most nights we stayed with friends or relatives, but Mary’s time grows short. In our hurry today we kept walking when the sun went down and in the darkness we wandered from the trail.”
“The path is just below us, around some trees,” Matthew pointed downhill, into the darkness. “And Bethlehem isn’t far; no more than an hour or two.”
“Will we find a midwife there?”
“There’s an old woman, Sarah, near the marketplace. She assisted when my son was born. Ask for her in the inn.”
“You have a son?” Mary asked.
Matthew nodded. “His name is John.”
“I will soon have a Son – tonight, I think. It’s been foretold to me. Is your son a shepherd like you?”
Matthew paused. By nature he was a reticent man and it was customary for him to lock away his problems. But something about this woman compelled him to open his heart to her. “We disagreed,” he told her simply. “He doesn’t wish to follow me. We quarrelled and he ran away. I don’t know where he is.”
Mary saw the pain in his eyes. “Oh Matthew…! I’m sorry. Come… sit near me.”
She took his hand and he sat by the fire close to her. “I’m sure he will return to you,” she said softly.
“I fear not,” said Matthew. “He thinks I’m a fool to remain a shepherd. He said some harsh words before he left.”
“He probably regrets them now.”
“Perhaps… I also regret some of what I said. But I cannot understand why he will not be a shepherd?”
“Is it so bad if a son does not wish to follow his father?” she asked him.
“But it’s all I have to pass on to my son. What’s my life been for if I have nothing to leave behind? Who will remember me, who will speak of me?”
“Your son won’t forget you,” Mary said. “Accept him for what he is. What a man does is not as important as how he does it. There are many paths to God.”
Matthew smiled sadly. “You’re young and the future shines brightly for the young. Perhaps you will think differently when your son grows to defy his father.”
Mary laughed briefly and squeezed his hand tightly. “My husband is a carpenter but my Son will not work with wood. He will be a shepherd like you. And His flock will be more numerous than the stars above us. He will follow His father in His own way.”
“What do you mean?” Matthew asked her.
“An Angel of the Lord came to me,” Mary said. “My Son will be a Saviour for all men. I’ll ask Him to watch over your son as you watch over your flock.”
Matthew stared at her, disbelieving. She smiled at his obvious doubts, and then she drew his hand close and pressed it against her stomach. Suddenly, he felt her Child move powerfully and he gasped in astonishment as the movement surged through his whole body. What was this? Heat and love and power suffused his being.
“My Lady…” he stammered.
“Shhh,” Mary hushed him gently. ““I’ll tell my Son of you and how you helped us. Even though He comes to save all mankind, He will watch for the lost sheep. He will find your son and bring him home.”
“Thank you…” Tears coursed freely down Matthew’s face.
“You must comfort your wife,” Mary went on. “Mothers worry. It’s what we do – we love and therefore we worry and we suffer.”
“I’ll tell her of you.”
He remained sitting with Mary while she rested and they spoke of ordinary things, of sheep and dogs and children…of friends and family. She ate a little of the food, some slivers of bread dipped in the soft sheep’s cheese, and she drank a few mouthfuls of water. Joseph also took a little. He was nervous and fretful; aware that his wife’s time was near and anxious to get her to the safety of Bethlehem.
A little later, he went and tightened the rough saddle and harness and retied the couple’s tattered belongings on the donkey’s back. Then he returned to the fire. “It’s time to leave,” he said gently as he helped Mary to her feet. “You’ll have a bed in the inn tonight.”
She smiled weakly at him, swaying so much that both he and Matthew were obliged to lift her onto the donkey. When she was seated, leaning feebly over the animal’s neck, she took Matthew’s hand and thanked him again. Joseph then grasped his shoulder briefly. “God be with you,” he said simply. Then he led the donkey into the darkness towards Bethlehem, and the old sheepdog followed behind them.
Matthew stared after them until the sound of the donkey’s hooves on the stony soil had faded and nothing remained but the night wind sighing.
He wasn’t surprised when the dog failed to return; somehow he thought he might not see him again. He sat and stared into the dying fire and struggled to make sense of what had occurred. He wasn’t a deeply religious man but he knew the prophecies and the stories written in scripture. They said a Messiah would come into the world – a Saviour would come. But did he believe it…! And if he did believe…was this the night the whole world waited for?
Later in the night, before the faint glow of daylight began to wash the stars from the eastern sky, a bright light flashed in the darkness directly above him. It illuminated the desolate hillside and the sleeping flock for several seconds. Then it faded slowly into black, the afterimage lingering in Matthew’s eyes like a white spark.
For just a moment, he felt a wrench deep inside his breast, as if the world had skipped a beat in its endless journey through the heavens. Something momentous has taken place, he thought. An emperor or a king has died. Or a king has been born. Perhaps the shepherd who would tend mankind has finally been born; the shepherd who would find and save his son. At this thought his mind cleared and doubts vanished. I will go and see, he decided. I will welcome this Saviour child into the world. Then he picked up his pack, and set off in the direction Joseph and Mary had taken.