The shepherd and the Passover lamb
A short story by Fr RALPH DE HAHN
My name is Eli and for these many years I have lived as a shepherd on the hills outside Bethlehem.
My friends Moshe, Shlomo, Yitzchak and I care for hundreds of sheep night after night; but we have a special watch over the lambs, for especially at nightfall we need sharp eyes to scan the hills for wolves and even thieves.
It is often very lonely; the air is silent, the stars peep down, but we hear not a word, except the occasional bleat.
We shepherds are a class of our own. We have little to boast about, no real home, no possessions, just the open fields and the animals we care for. However, I treasure the nights and lonely hours that I live on these precious hills just outside Beit-lehem, once known as Ephratah, and identified as the city of our illustrious king David.
It was here, one thousand years ago, that the shepherd boy David was called and anointed by Samuel as the second king of our people. This is his birthplace. And this David was the great-grandson of Ruth who also came to live here. Not far from here is the tomb of Rachel, wife to Jacob, revered by thousands.
There are times when this town is named Beit-lahm “the house of flesh”, recalling Herod’s slaughter of the Innocents.
Indeed this is a special site; I am told we are 758m above sea level and lie about 8km south-west of the great city Jerusalem, where in the spring the great feast of the Passover is celebrated with great solemnity.
It is our joyful privilege here on the Bethlehem hills to supply the temple with the pure lambs for sacrifice during Passover. At this time of Passover we chat among ourselves more than other times as we recall the First Passover in the time of Moses and how the blood of the unblemished lamb saved the Israelites from the avenging angel of death.
These precious little lambs were under our care, and we were extremely careful to present a worthy sacrifice to the Lord. Sadly, I have heard it mentioned that at least 250000 innocent lambs are slain for this festival event. When Cestius was governor of Palestine he had informed Nero that the pilgrims visiting Jerusalem numbered well over two million. Of course the Romans ruling from Caesarea sent a strong detachment of troops to keep order in and around the city.
What happened one extraordinary night will remain with me forever. Darkness had fallen, the air was icy, and yet there was a strange warmness all about us. No, it was not the blazing fire; it was more of a warming presence. Somebody, something awesome was all about us. There was a hum in the air; I felt it.
Then suddenly a flash of pure white, and there stood a heavenly visitor with a very clear message: “This night is born to you a Saviour. He is Christ the Lord…”
Unbelievable! Why to us shepherds? And then a tremendous glow filled the heavens, even the stars were twinkling, and a vast regiment of angelic creatures floated all about and the chorus of voices never heard on earth before echoed over the hills, and the sheep joined the chorus with their joyful bleating, and the angelic choirs sang their triumphant hymn of praise “Glory to God in the highest…”
For me, it was all so terrifying, yet incredibly joyful, with sounds unimaginable; sounds beyond what is humanly beautiful.
Moshe and Shlomo lay prostrate on the ground as the angel spoke. The instruction was to go into Bethlehem and seek a babe in a manger. Then suddenly the vision was gone, the angelic voices faded into the now dark night—but that warmth and joy remained, something I am unable to describe or explain.
My friends and I remained motionless and speechless for a time. Had all this really happened here on the far-off hills of Bethlehem? Utterly stunned were we! For imagine, first the rich glory of the heavens, a message of a Saviour, and then a journey to a stable to seek a babe wrapped in utter poverty. It all seemed so unbelievable!
Leaving Yitzchak behind to watch the sheep and lambs, my two friends and I journeyed to the City of David to seek this child. And indeed we found him wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger in a cattle shed.
The mother was a very young and beautiful Jewish maid, who had travelled all the way from Nazareth with her husband Joseph who was apparently of the house of David; for they told me it was here that he was born before plying his trade in Nazareth and it was also highly probable that he had a large family still living here, possibly over 30 generations, who were descended from King David.
This little babe, a Saviour! The Messiah? But the angel of God had spoken, of that we were sure. It was no dream! I remember how the lamb I carried in my arms leapt for joy it seemed, and so, not knowing why, I gently laid the lamb at the feet of the tiny babe.
While reposing around the blazing fire we discussed again the innocent lambs who were to be prepared for the Passover sacrifice, innocent indeed, so meek, so soft and tender—God’s beautiful gift to us!
Thirty years later, when news spread all over the land that a certain prophet named John was calling all Israel to repentance by baptising people in the river Jordan, I made my way from the hills, travelled northwards, to the spot where John was performing this rite of pouring water over the heads of those who were willing to repent.
It was around Aenon in the Judaean desert. I stood there with the excited crowd curiously watching, waiting. Then I saw and heard something I can never forget. A young bearded man stepped into view, and John stopped, stared and then cried out: “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who will take away the sins of the world.”
A lamb! To be sent from God! To be sacrificed for the sins of the world!
To be sacrificed…to be slaughtered? Not one of my lambs surely? No. I stared at him; my mouth was parched; a warm sensation gripped my entire being; and then this stranger threw a glance at me. Yes, he recognised me. I know he did.
Oh God, if I had only known at the time who it was lying in a manger.