The last shepherd to return from gathering firewood dropped a meager load of sticks on the ground beside the sputtering fire. He looked at his partners huddled close to the feeble flame and knew they faced another long, cold night ahead. Drawing his cloak tighter around his shoulders, he gazed upward at the deep and mysterious sky. The moon had already set, leaving behind stars so brilliant the young man felt he could brush them with his hands and watch them fall like apple blossoms in his father’s orchard back home.
‘Home’ was a bittersweet word to him after so many months away with the flock. He slept on the ground, ate cold food most of the time, and—above all—spent day and night watching over the most stubborn and seemingly stupid creatures God ever made. Surely he could expect more from his life than this? He’d heard David’s writing in the synagogue: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul” (Psalm 23:1-3). “Beautiful words,” the shepherd thought, “but when will they come true for me?”
He stretched his aching muscles one last time, bid his fellows goodnight and lay down on the frigid ground. Perhaps in his dreams he’d find the promised land of God’s blessing which seemed so elusive in the light of day.
“What is that?” one of the other shepherds said. “Do you see that?”
In irritation, the shepherd rolled over for a look, expecting to see the men searching the shadows for some phantom threat to the sheep. Instead, they all sat gazing upward into the sky.
“It’s coming closer,” another said. “What is that?”
As the shepherd sat up, the hilltop suddenly burst into light—more luminous and warming than the brightest day he’d ever seen. Strangely, the light didn’t hurt his eyes. He scrambled to his feet to join his friends, and they clung to each other, terrified. Suddenly a man stood before them, as radiant and pure as the light surrounding him.