One of my favorite memories of my childhood is of the visits to my grandparents’ home at Christmas time. People say that, when traveling, getting there is half the fun. I’ve traveled the world in my life and I’m not sure I agree with that, but I do have some clear, joyful memories of those Christmas visits.
First of all, we would get up very early in the morning because it was a long drive. It would be pitch black as my sisters and I piled into the backseat of the car, a car mind you which had no heater. My mother would tuck the blankets around us to keep us warm. She then filled canning jars with boiling water and placed these at our feet so our toes would not freeze in this New York State winter. Over the top of this heap of girls and blankets and hot water jars she would lay our warmest blanket—the one made of the hair from a horse’s tail. It sure kept us warm, but boy was that thing scratchy.
Not even half an hour into the journey one of us would inevitably ask, “Aren’t we there yet?” Or, “How much farther, Daddy?” Or, “Go faster.” After that the whining would start, “I don’t like the dark. When is the sun going to come up?” My mother tried to humor us by getting us to think about the treats which would be waiting for us at Grandma’s house. And so we eventually arrived in Mansfield, Pennsylvania.
Yes, we looked at the Christmas tree and checked which presents were ours. But most of all we stood with wonder gazing at the large banquet table with my grandmother’s Haviland China, the silverware, the crystal and the bowls of steaming food—all aglow in the flickering candlelight. My sisters and I had a little contest to see who would be the first one to catch a glimpse of the pig—yes, the pig. You see, my grandfather, who I now know must have been part Papua New Guinean in spirit, believed that Christmas was not Christmas unless there was roasted pig. We fairly shrieked when we saw him with the large silver tray carrying the poor beast from the kitchen. I don’t ever remember actually eating on Christmas day. I suppose I did, but coming from a farming community I sat mesmerized by the sight of a pig on the table. That’s the only thing I remember from the meal.
After dinner there was dessert, and something else a little strange. Along with suet pudding for everyone came coffee for the adults. Everyone else put sugar and cream in their coffee, but my grandfather seasoned his with salt and pepper, believe it or not. That was the closing of a perfect day. We now felt amply rewarded for the long, cold trip, and for having to travel half the time in the dark.
Fast forward to today. As I reread the Christmas story in Luke 2 I was quite taken by verse 8—“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” I couldn’t help but wonder if they, like we children, asked themselves, “When is the daylight going to come. Stir up the fire, I’m cold. I can’t wait for the sun to come up.”
When we read this verse we are probably thinking of the Hallmark Christmas card scene, or something from a Renaissance painter: Shepherds with their bathrobes and turbans, sheep grazing on a lush hillside with the starlight flooding down. But this is really a picture of poverty and toil and fears. The chief work of the shepherd was to see that the sheep found plenty to eat and drink. The flocks were not fed in pens or folds but, summer and winter, they depended upon foraging for their food. They were also charged with protecting the flock from predators.
The shepherd’s chief garment was a cloak woven from wool or made from sheepskin which hung like a shawl over his shoulder. His only two pieces of equipment were a rod and staff.
Why am I painting this scene of the world of those shepherds? Well, I want you to gain a more correct picture of the hardships faced by those men. I can relate much better to the lifestyle of the shepherds than I can to the wise men. Aren’t you glad that the announcement of the birth of the Savior and Prince of Peace came, not only to sophisticates, the educated, the well-to-do? It came also to those who were toiling. I think that says a great deal about God’s compassion and is an illustration of how He truly loves us. He didn’t just tell the shepherds the good news, he told them first. He made sure the message got out to those who needed it most that night; those who were afraid, those who were on the outskirts of the social life of Bethlehem town, those who had to face the dark night alone.
Have you ever felt like you’re on the outside?Have you ever felt like the work you’re involved in is difficult and not very rewarding? Have you had dark nights of the soul? Most of us have, and that’s why the Gospel is so powerful. It speaks to the fears and the sufferings of the masses of humanity and not just those at the top of the food chain.
This story gives me hope in my private battles, in the dark of the night. Why? Because if we read the next verses in Luke we learn that light enters their darkness, and the darkness in the world cannot overcome that light. That is a powerful message, and one to trust.