Four hundred years. Generations upon generations waiting, passing down a promise that now seems like lore. A King is coming…the prophets declared it. Isaiah announced a Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. My father told me so. My grandfather told him. For centuries fathers and mothers have taught the promise to their children. We won’t always be wondering. One day He will come.
I don’t think about it every day. I’ve lived my whole life in The Silence. It’s all I’ve ever known. But sometimes, on nights like tonight when the sky is clear and the stars look like Heaven is reaching to touch the earth, I can’t help but daydream. My heart wants to believe that God spoke through the prophets. I want to believe the Messiah is coming to save His people, although why He would want to save me, I have no idea. If He doesn’t come, will this be yet another story I pass down to my own future children and grandchildren at bedtime?
I pray to the one who made these skies, I really do, but I don’t know what He is doing. Sometimes it is so hard to wait for an answer to your prayers. And to not hear anything in your entire lifetime like the prophets of old?
Back home, my younger siblings act out the stories. They pretend they are Moses and Aaron and Miriam. They part the Red Sea with a knobby tree limb, and they walk back and forth down the street like it’s the wilderness. They toss stones at the tallest tree they can find, like they are David and the tree is Goliath. My little sister is Esther, inviting the King and Haman to dinner. She braids her hair and mumbles, “for such a time as this” and she spoons dirt into little clay bowls.
They act out the same stories, over and over again. There are no new ones, after all. I don’t recreate the stories with them anymore because I’m a few years older and I have to work with my older brothers to help our family, but I try to imagine what the next story will look like. What the Messiah will be like when He comes.
A thick, dark strand of hair escapes my braid, and I tuck it behind my ears as I lie back on the grass and look at the stars. My nails are torn and caked with dirt, and I know my face is not any cleaner. It’s warm out tonight, and a bead of sweat runs from my forehead into my hairline. I swipe at it with the back of my hand and sigh. I’ve never had the luxury of beauty. My eyes are dark and round and might even be pretty, but it doesn’t matter. I’m tougher than most girls. My job requires it. I haven’t even cried since I was little and scraped my knee while climbing on rocks. Emotions don’t really have a place in a job that requires attentiveness and strength and bravery.
Something rustles beside me, and I turn to rub the wooly head of the closest thing I have to a friend. The little lamb is pure white and so soft. He doesn’t respond to me scratching his ears, but stays frozen like he’s afraid. I reach to my left and grab my staff, my eyes instinctively seeking out the light of my brother’s campfire a short distance away. Tonight might be interesting.
My trained ears don’t hear anything, and I start to settle back down. I stretch an arm behind my head and–
A flash of light. So bright it leaves me seeing spots. I jerk to my feet, staff in hand, and the light throbs again.
What is happening?
A golden figure, clothed in white robes appears, and I drop to my knees. I try to scramble backward, but my hands slip and I fall on my back. The figure comes closer to earth and I shield my face with my arm. I feel helpless. I want to scream for help, but my voice won’t work. I can’t even swallow. I feel paralyzed.
“Do not be afraid!” The figure declares. His voice is loud and strong and my teeth chatter and I feel like I might be sick. “I have great, joyful news for you! For everyone!”
What? Great news? Who is this? This couldn’t be an angel, could it? What is he saying?
“Tonight the Savior has been born for you. He is Christ, the Lord. Here is what you look for: A baby, wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a feeding trough.”
My mind spins and I try to grasp at something—anything—that makes sense. The Savior? He couldn’t possibly mean the Savior, right? Because that would mean the Messiah had come.
Now the stars behind the angel pulse brighter and brighter until suddenly the sky splits open and all is white light.
I squint, trying to see, and more figures emerge. Hundreds and hundreds of them! In front of me, to my right and left, and behind me. They fill the sky. And then they start singing!
“Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to all who please Him!”
Their voices ring through the sky, and I think I hear trumpets. And drums. And harps. And it’s all so loud and beautiful and I can’t look away. Thousands of them are singing and playing music and praising God!
Then darkness. Silence. Everything bright disappears so quickly it takes me a minute before my eyes adjust to seeing just the stars again. I try to stand, but then I hear it:
“Come on!” It’s my oldest brother yelling from the other side of the hill. “Let’s go see what this is!”
I scoop my little lamb into my arms and run, leaving my staff and the rest of the sheep behind. When I arrive at the bottom of the hill, my brother stands, shaking, the light from the fire dancing in his wild eyes. He is always nothing but tough and courageous and in control, but right now he looks like a madman. The rest of us barely reach him before he takes off running toward town.
I run as fast as I can, realizing I forgot to grab my sandals. My feet are calloused anyway, but I run so fast I barely feel the dirt and rocks beneath me.
I lag behind, but not by much. My brothers stop at the mouth of a stable. A stable?
I push my way to the front of the group, my little lamb bleating in confusion. I cup my hand over his mouth and try to see what everyone’s staring at.
A girl. She looks like she’s my age, like she can’t be more than sixteen. She’s sitting on a blanket, reclined against a bale of hay, holding something wrapped in dingy shreds of a cloak. Her hair is matted around her weary face, but a silent energy seems to radiate from her. A man stands beside her, staring at us. He looks just as tired yet alive as the girl. He hesitates for just a second, glancing at the girl, then nods to us, extending his hand in welcome.
I step into the cave. I’m used to the smell of sheep, but the stale air in the musty stable makes me breathe through my mouth. My little lamb goes silent and still in my arms, and I set him on the straw-covered floor.
I don’t know if my brothers are following me, but I don’t care. Something pushes me further into the stable, toward the girl and the bundle she holds. Sweat drips down my face, and my heart pounds in my chest. I don’t think it’s from running through the fields, though.
I reach the girl and look down and see she’s cradling a baby in her arms. Just like the angel said. He’s so small and pink, and he sleeps.
I slowly reach out a hand, then stop myself. I can’t touch a newborn baby with dirty hands like these. I’m a grimy, gritty shepherd girl. I can’t come close to something so clean and pure and new.
“This is Jesus.” I jerk my head up as his mother whispers His name. Jesus. This is the Savior? The Messiah?
As if in answer to the questions I haven’t dared to ask aloud, the girl nods. “This is Emmanuel.”
Emmanuel. God with us.
I sink to my knees in front of the baby, and I cry. Big tears roll down my face and I don’t even try to stop them. My shoulders shake and I bury my face in my hands. This is the salvation the prophets promised hundreds of years ago? This little one is God? And I get to witness this moment?
I look up through cloudy eyes and the girl pulls the baby away from where He’s nestled in the crook of her arm, holding Him closer to where I kneel.
I slowly move my gaze to the baby and reach toward Him. My hand trembles and my chin quivers. I am dirty and vile in the presence of this holy child-king. But the girl brings Him even closer.
With reverence and awe, I reach out and gently stroke His head of dark curls. He slowly opens his sleepy eyes, and at once it hits me: I’m in the presence of the Promise. I’m face-to-face with the Hope of the world. I’m touching the answer to all of our pain and uncertainty and questions and waiting. I am looking at the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
And He is looking at me.
Right at me, a shepherdess from a poor family with no money, no accomplishments, no reputation.
And yet I don’t feel my filthiness. I don’t feel shame at all of the dirt and grime. I just feel alive.
I slowly pull my hand back and press it into my cloak, near where my heart beats wild inside my chest.
The baby – Jesus – opens His mouth and yawns. His whimper is soft like a whisper, but I hear it louder than the heavenly chorus.
The Silence is broken.
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder.
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.”
– Isaiah 9:6-7