Eli the shepherd – last year’s Christmas monologue

Here’s the Christmas monologue from last year:

The challenge with these stories is always that their familiarity makes it hard to really hear them. We think we know what they are about, but a lot of the time we are remembering a nativity play rather than the story that was written down. One of the clues to this is that all the gospel writers tell a slightly different story, bringing out different characters, fresh perspectives. Our nativity plays and carol services cherry-pick the best bits from all of them, to present a story that the writers never did.

So I thought I’d really look at Luke’s version of the story. When you do this, it becomes obvious that Luke is telling a story about shepherds. Mary and Joseph travelling to Bethlehem and finding a stable where the baby is born is all told fairly briefly. We never hear them speak. But he spends a long time talking about the shepherds and what happens to them, and does a lot of the explaining about what has happened through their eyes. So what might it be like to see the events of Christmas through their eyes?

It wasn’t an easy job, being a shepherd, it meant spending a lot of time out in the fields. Sheep would be out in the fields from November to April. The poor soil that characterised a lot of Palestine meant that flocks had to move around to find pasture. Their shepherds would go ahead of them, seeking out water and grass. It was hard work, and dangerous at times – shepherds watched the sheep because they were at risk, from thieves or wild animals, or from falling into crevices or climbing onto cliff ledges. But not only that, being a shepherd out in the fields meant you couldn’t follow the religious law, you couldn’t attend the religious feasts, couldn’t observe the Sabbath. David had been a shepherd, but most shepherds were seen as fairly irreligious, smelly, rough characters, and often dishonest, roving around the countryside taking what they found. Not the people you’d expect to be the first witnesses to the birth of Christ.

Let’s imagine for a moment one of the shepherds out in the fields that night: Eli. Eli’s been a shepherd all his life, like his father before him, and his father before that. His sons are out in the fields with him. He’s seen pretty much all there is to see out there – seen off robbers and wolves, been out in all weather. It’s been a long cold night. He’s sat by the fire, looking over the sleeping sheep and shepherds.

Suddenly, there’s an angel standing next to him. Whatever you think an angel looks like: halo, robes, wings, harp, slightly ethereal, put that aside. This is a man, physically imposing, and seeming more real and solid than anything around him, but obviously not of this world. Whenever anyone sees an angel they are terrified. He’s a warrior, in armour and carrying a sword, but that’s not the reason for the terror. Glory shines from him like light. Glory is the physical manifestation of God’s presence. Wherever this man is, God is. Think about that for a minute. God stands next to you, utterly and unmistakably there, powerful enough to snuff you like a candle-flame, and utterly and completely alien. This is not a human being. This is an emissary of another world, full of danger and mystery.

So Eli manages nothing more than a startled yelp as he frantically pats the shoulder of the son sleeping next to him, his eyes large, mouth hanging open, heart thudding in his chest. His sons awaken quickly – years as a shepherd teach you that if danger comes you need to be up. They’re all there, huddled together for safety, before the angel’s words really register.

“Don’t be afraid”. I expect he has to say it several times before they can really take it in.

They stop cowering, maybe they move apart a bit, maybe they stand up, but I don’t think you can ever really feel comfortable or relaxed next to an angel.

But the angel hasn’t finished talking.

“I bring you good news of great joy for all people.”

That doesn’t sound so bad. Eli begins to breathe a bit more easily. His first instinct had been to assume they were all going to die. They’re not exactly observant jews. They go to the Temple – when they’re delivering sheep ready for the sacrifices – but the priests won’t have anything to do with them. They sell to the market traders. Everyone assumes they’re sinners, so decent people won’t have anything to do with them. And that sort of prejudice encourages you to make bad choices. He’s seen it in his sons, felt it in himself. They’re a motley bunch. And if he had ever thought God might turn up and say anything to them, Eli would have expected it to be something with a good deal more ‘Thou shalt not’ about it.

“To you is born this day in the City of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

The angel had to repeat this bit too. Even after having gotten over the shock of not being dead, it took a lot for Eli to take on board that not only was the Messiah, the promised saviour, who he’d heard stories about all his life but never really wasted too much time actually thinking about, not only was he actually coming, he was coming tonight, and he was coming in the town whose lights they could see in the valley below them. And the angel had told them to find him.

Suddenly they are surrounded. An army of angels, each as imposing as the first, singing “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth”. The sound is overpowering, just like the men themselves. Being in their presence is like standing too close to the sun, it feels like no human being can stand it for too long. But then they are gone, leaving the shepherds standing about, trembling, the echo of the song still ringing in their ears. Eli’s sons turn to him, the same crazy hope burning in each of their eyes.

“Can we go and find him?”

Eli looks at them, and smiles.

“Go.” He says. “I’ll watch the sheep.”

Eli sits by the fire, watching the sleeping flock. Somewhere down in Bethlehem he hears the singing start. Not pure, clear voices like the angels, but the rough voices of his sons, as they make their way back to the fields, praising God for all that they had seen. The Messiah has come, and God has chosen him and his sons to be the first to see him. What did it mean? He’s pretty sure that the rabbis and the priests wouldn’t think they were good enough. But maybe God does think they’re good enough. Now that really would be good news.

The Angel Theodosius – 2013’s Christmas offering

I was sitting down to write my traditional Christmas monologue and I realised I never got round to posting the last few year’s, so here’s one from 2013:

A glimpse behind the scenes at Christmas…

We all know the Christmas story. Very well, almost too well. But there was once a time when it wasn’t known at all. When it actually happened, I expect most of it passed people by. The whole thing was a bit of a secret operation on God’s part, after all – putting himself behind enemy lines, so to speak. I wonder if even the hosts of heaven really knew what was going on. Perhaps we might imagine an angel, not one of the important ones, not Gabriel or Michael or anyone, someone fairly junior. Would he really know what was going on? I’m sure they’d all know something was happening – I mean, the second person of the Trinity goes missing for 9 months and you can’t expect it to go unnoticed. But the whole plan must have been so secret, and so unlikely, that I imagine this angel, let’s call him Theodosius, wouldn’t really be able to puzzle it out.

We might imagine Theodosius sitting with his friends sharing news (I’m sure angels don’t gossip, so we’ll call it sharing news).

“What could he be doing?” one might say “It must be something very important, to have taken so long.”

“Perhaps he’s making something new? After all, the Word was a key part of creation, wasn’t he? Maybe this is creation part 2 or something?”

“But surely we’d see if something that big was happening?”

“But the archangels have been acting a bit funny, haven’t they?”

“How do you mean? I know Gabriel went off on that top-secret mission and would never say anything about it, but that was almost a year ago now.”

“No, they keep doing reconnaissance flights over Galilee when they think no-one is watching.”

“Over Galilee? That’s odd. You’d think if there was anything important happening then it would be in Jerusalem, at the Temple.”

“Shhh. Here he comes now.”

“Yes, Mr Gabriel, sir? A special mission, needs the heavenly host out in force? Absolutely. We’ll just get our harps… and… oh. Not me? Right. There’s another little job for me to do? Oh, ok? Should I get my harp too? Am I singing to someone? No. My sword, then, do I need to fight someone? No. Right, then. I should get my best robes on though, yes? Just so I look my best? Oh. No-one’s going to see me. I see. No, no, of course that’s fine, sir. We each have our jobs to do, don’t we? Right. I’ll get right to it. Thank you, sir.”

Some time later we might imagine Theodosius sitting on the roof of a ramshackle stable at the back of a down-market inn at the less desireable end of Bethlehem. Somewhere below him there’s a dirty young girl giving birth while her fiancée hovers anxiously with a lamp. They’ve just arrived in town, late, after a long journey. Theodosius had encouraged an innkeeper to take pity on them and offer them the stable to stay in. He’d still charged them an extortionate amount for it, but frankly the man wouldn’t have offered anything if he hadn’t had his indifference massaged a bit. Theodosius looked out to the hillside. All but invisible to mortal eyes, a vast choir of angels was surrounding a group of shepherds. It was going to be the most incredible show of force by the heavenly host in centuries. And Theodosius was missing it. Angels don’t get jealous. But he was sad that he couldn’t be with his friends and experience it for himself.

He heard a sudden silence below him, then the cry of a newborn baby. He was glad it had ended well for them. It wasn’t their fault they’d had to travel when she was heavily pregnant. The Romans ordered people around as they pleased. The little people without wealth or privilege to protect them always got the rough end of the deal. They’d be lucky to make it through their lives without some sort of tragedy befalling them. And they seemed a nice enough couple. A little underlying tension about the baby, he thought, but they seemed to genuinely love each other.

There was a blaze of glorious light from the hillside and he could faintly hear the great hymns of praise the angels were offering up. But that was all. He couldn’t make out the words. He sighed, and settled back on the roof. They’d tell him all about it later, he was sure. Why these shepherds were so important, what it was they’d had to announce to them. He’d been surprised when he realised that that was what the mission was about, he had to admit. Shepherds were not the sort of people he’d expect to have an angelic visitation. Notoriously vulgar and lacking in religious devotion – their job meant they could never make it to festivals or the synagogue on a Sabbath. Still, David had been a shepherd when he was anointed to be King, and these were shepherds of Bethlehem, David’s own town. Who knows, maybe this was the calling of a new prophet, or even a new king? It wasn’t quite as impressive to have helped a young couple find a room for the night, but as he’d said to Gabriel, they all had their jobs to do. And his couldn’t always be the glamorous one.

The light went out, and the choir dispersed. Theodosius smiled. It was wonderful just to have seen it from a distance. He wondered how much longer he needed to stay before he could get back and talk with the others. The couple had found somewhere safe to stay and the baby had been safely born. There really wasn’t much more for him to do. He drifted down through the rafters and looked down on the baby. They’d put some fresh straw in a manger and put the child in it as a makeshift bed. He seemed healthy. A very ordinary baby, with parents to love him. A new beginning for them. A small, everyday miracle. It lacked the glamour of the angelic choir, but it was something new being brought into the world. He found the smile was still on his lips, despite the smell of the stable. His work was done. And strangely, he didn’t feel as disappointed as he’d thought he might have been to have missed all the excitement on the hillside.

He let himself rise up again, through the rafters, into the night air. The shepherds seemed to be heading back into town, singing their own praises to God. Whatever had happened tonight, it was big, he could sense it.

He’d expected that the hall would be full of excited chatter – the normal post-flight buzz, only more so, after all they’d not been out in force for such a long time. He never expected that they would all be silent, expectant, waiting for him to come back. All his questions about the message to the shepherds died on his lips as he entered.

“Theodosius has returned!” Gabriel shouted, and the hall erupted in cheers. “The baby has been born! God himself has been born as a human being!”

For a moment, Theodosius’ mind went blank. He found himself replaying the evening’s events in his head. The couple, stumbling wearily up the road. The desperate search for somewhere to stay. The young woman going into labour. The baby being born. The baby. He remembered looking down at the child’s face. Remembered how he had felt. This is how creation starts again. With God right in the middle of it. How could he have missed it? How could anyone miss it? For a second he felt ashamed: he had been there and hadn’t even realised it, but then the enormity of it hit him: he had been there. He felt the smile on his lips again that he’d had when he looked at the baby. The choir had started singing again. And this time, Theodosius joined in.