The life of a shepherd was usually unexciting. The occasional wild animal might cause alarm to the flock but most of the nights were filled with sitting around, keeping warm and listening for tell-tale signs of danger nearby. Reuben was a young man, of the tribe of Levi, the priestly clan. While he had been a shepherd since boyhood, the older shepherds treated him like their personal slave. It was the way of the world, he reflected. as the took his turn guarding the temple flock while the others settled down for the night. ‘The old teach the young,’ he reasoned, ‘in time I will give the orders and others will obey.’ He stirred the fire with a stick, bright sparks dancing into the dark sky around him. He looked carefully at the two new-born lambs that lay near the fire with their tired mother. Aaron, the elder shepherd, had finally entrusted Reuben with the wrapping of the lambs in strips of linen cloths. This was an age-old practice of the temple shepherds. New-born lambs, especially those with no obvious sign of blemish or fault, were to be wrapped in swaddling cloths to ensure their purity and perfection were protected until they were needed for their grisly, but needed, end as sacrifice for the sins of the people.
As a child Reuben had always avoided thinking about the future of the lambs in his care; he would run away when those for slaughter were being selected, silent tears flowing down his face as he missed them over the coming days. Now that he was a young man, he no longer cried, but the practice still did not sit well with him.
He knew the importance of atonement, how one lamb would be chosen to carry the sins of the nation into the brutal loneliness of the wilderness, while the other would be sacrificed on the blood-stained altar of the temple. He knew it, but he did not fully understand the need for it. Was God so angry with his people that the blood of the innocent was necessary for his appeasing. As a member of the priestly clan he would never voice his question in public, but in the yearning for trust and meaning that grew within him, he did wonder, was there not a better way to rid him of sinfulness.
The light that blazed above him almost blinded him. For a moment he thought it was that strange star that had appeared earlier in the evening, but this was stronger, fiercer, more immediately present. As the intensity of the light settled he realised it was a person, of sorts. Falling back with a cry of alarm, his fellow shepherds jumped up, ready to face whatever danger was coming. They weren’t ready for what their waking eyes saw. Cowering back from the tall, slender form that glowed so brightly before them, they feared for their very lives. ‘Do not be afraid,’ Gabriel urged them, their alarm and dread palpable in the cool night air; ‘Do not be afraid, because I have come to give you good news of great joy. Today, in the city of David below you, a Saviour and deliverer has been born to you, yes he is the promised Messiah! You shepherds will easily recognise him, he will be wrapped in strips of cloths, lying in a manger; yes, a feeding trough!’
Reuben glanced at the nearby lambs, warm and snug in their swaddling cloths. Was it possible? Could it be true, was there indeed another way of atonement? As if to affirm his thoughts, the whole sky seemed to light up as hundreds and thousands of heavenly messengers appeared above them, as if they had just stepped through a gateway. For the rest of his earthly life, Reuben would never forget the sight nor the heart-rending joyful song of God’s messengers as they proclaimed ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven! And peace on earth to all those in whom God takes such great pleasure!’ Then the sky was clear again and the shepherds were left looking in awe-filled wonder at each other, it was Reuben who took charge – ‘Let us go, even unto Bethlehem, and see this incredible thing that has come to pass!’