While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night
It was dark by the time that Simon reached the valley where the others had made camp.
The light of the moon was barely enough to see by, and his bad leg was aching fiercely. His leg always ached, though more often than not, he was able to ignore it. But not tonight. Tonight, all of him hurt, but his leg - and the gash on his arm from his fall - were the worst. His shoulder wasn't far behind - the crutch he used took most of his weight, and the muscles of his shoulder were weary after a long day of being braced against the rigid wood. (There was another familiar pain too, somewhere in his chest, but it was the sort of pain that no man-made balm could cure.)
He kept going nonetheless, pressing steadily forward until he reached the top of the hill.
The little lamb he'd chosen that morning followed beside him, a rope still tied around its neck; Simon could say that much, at least. He'd kept his eyes on the lamb all day, and he'd held on so tightly to the other end of the rope that his fingers were stiff, but that was one ache he didn't mind. The lamb may not have been fitting for sacrifice, but he could return it to the flock. That was something he'd done right, if nothing else.
It was Matthew who spotted him first from his place in the field.
"Ha!" the other shepherd scoffed. "Finally, he's back."
"Hello, Simon," Natan called from somewhere near the fire, trying, as he always did, to be welcoming, though it seemed almost halfhearted tonight. Perhaps he was angrier now that he'd had time to think about what had happened in the market.
The thought made Simon's throat tighten, but his mouth was so dry that it turned into a cough as he bent down to start untying the rope from the lamb's neck. He could feel Matthew watching him.
"Stay with the sheep," the older man ordered sharply before turning and making his way to the fire with the others.
Simon didn't bother answering as his stiff fingers kept working to loosen the knot. When the rope held fast, he knelt down in the damp grass, wincing as the movement pulled at his leg, The lamb bleated softly in response.
He was sure it had been spotless when they'd left that morning. He didn't know when it had been hurt. Maybe the lamb had caught its flank in the brush as they'd walked. Or, maybe his limp had caused the lamb to stumble on the road. Either way, a spot of blood had stained the lamb's wool by one of its front legs, and the Pharisee had been angry that he dare offer the lamb for a sacrifice, threatening to banish him – and even Matthew, Aaron, and Natan – from the marketplace if it happened again.
The knot in the rope gave way at last, and the little lamb wasted no time running back to the flock, calling for its mother.
Simon pushed himself unsteadily to his feet using his crutch, then starting limping towards the camp where all of the others were gathered, the scent of cooked meat drifting on the breeze. He spotted his things in a small pile on the far side of the tent where the others must have left them, but he was too tired to walk there now. He paused just long enough to reach for the strap of the small pouch that hung near his waist, then he pulled that strap over his head and let it drop to the ground along with his waterskin. The untied length of rope joined them a moment later.
"Can I have my dinner now?" he asked, unable keep the hope from his voice as he looked at the men sitting around the fire.
"Not with us," Aaron answered bluntly. "Your plate is over there." He pointed towards the field.
"After what happened this morning," Matthew added, "you sleep with the sheep tonight."
Simon looked down at that, feeling the words like a blow.
"And pay attention this time!" Aaron added.
"And watch out for wolves," Matthew insisted next.
"Watch out for the Pharisee," Natan interjected, his voice hard despite the teasing. "He might come after you."
Natan scoffed at his own joke before Aaron changed the subject, complaining, as he often did, that the Romans had taken another sheep from the flock.
Simon recognized it for the dismissal it was, and knowing that it was pointless to argue – dangerous even, should they finally decide to turn him away for good – he looked around for a moment, his eyes finding an unused torch that had been set near the fire. He bent down to grab it, wincing, and then stretched the torch out towards the fire, waiting until the flames caught the end and it flared to life. Then, with one last look at the others, bitterness rising up in his chest, he started off again, turning away and walking back into the darkness of the valley.
His pace was slow and unsteady, his aching body refusing to move any faster, but that didn't matter.
The others wouldn't notice.
They never did...not unless he was slowing them down.
Eventually, the sound of their conversation faded into the distance and all he could hear was tapping of his crutch on the soft earth, the chirping of the crickets, and his own labored breathing. The warm glow of the fire disappeared as well, and the only light that remained came from the torch he held and the silvery moon overhead.
A few minutes later, he reached a nearby stream, and he winced as he drew closer to the embankment; the slope of the hill was steep enough that it was hard to keep his balance as he made his way to the bottom. Only practice and a few quick, stumbling steps kept him from falling.
Sighing heavily, he plunged the end of his torch into the bank of the stream, then crouched down, his bad leg folding quickly beneath him. On most days, it had a little more strength. Perhaps he had twisted it in his fall. The gash on his arm ached anew at the memory, so he set down his crutch and reached his hand into the running water, bringing some up to his forearm, trying to wash away the dried blood. It wasn't all dry, he realized - the worst of the bleeding had stopped, but the wound was still seeping.
He had nothing to bind it with, though, so washing it would have to be enough. When he was finished, he sat back, away from the water, and shivered. It was a cold night, the torch provided little heat, and cool water he'd used had stolen what little warmth he had to begin with. He rubbed his bare arm, being careful to avoid the broken skin as he tried to reclaim some of the warmth he'd lost, but it was useless.
Useless, he thought. Broken. Filthy. Insults he heard too often. Insults, perhaps, that he deserved.
The Pharisee's words from the market echoed in his mind: You wonder why the Messiah hasn't come? People like you, keeping him away with your stains.
Simon's vision blurred for a moment, and something like a sob rose up in his throat, but he drew a deep breath and tried to push the feeling back. He needed to watch the flock tonight, and after his failure in the market and the Pharisee's threat, the others would not tolerate any more mistakes on his part.
Reaching for his crutch, he tucked it under his shoulder, then braced his other hand on a rock in front of him and pushed himself unsteadily to his feet, his crutch bearing most of his weight, as it so often did. His legs had stiffened in the short time he'd been sitting, so he stood there for a moment, staring down at the stream, trying to gather his strength.
He was about to start in the direction of the flock when a sudden breeze swept the valley, and he looked over to see the flame of his torch flickering, the wind picking up speed until it was enough to snuff out the fire completely. Simon stared at it for a long moment in surprise before he looked around.
Was a storm was moving in? It couldn't be. The sky was clear in every direction – the stars shining brightly above him. Had they been that bright a moment ago?
The wind grew stronger still, tugging at the ends of his tunic, and the hairs on his arms stood on end as something indescribable stirred in the air. He turned to look in the direction of the camp where the others were, wondering if they could feel it too, and froze.
There, above the valley, was a light more brilliant than any he had ever seen before.
It grew and strengthened, outshining even the large star that had appeared in the sky some weeks ago. Simon's breath caught in his throat and his eyes widened as a being in the form of a man emerged from the light, his robes a blinding white, as luminous as the light itself.
Tears of awe filled Simon's eyes, and his jaw fell open in shock.
An angel, something in his soul whispered. An angel.
"Do not be afraid," the angel said.
The words were softly spoken, but Simon felt the command echo in earth, in the very marrow of his bones.
"For behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people," the angel continued. "For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord."
Simon's heart leapt in his chest. A Savior. The Messiah!
"And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in manger."
A...a manger? But-
The thought vanished as the sky came alive, a host of angels joining the first, the heavens ringing with their voices: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!"
As quickly as the light had come it vanished back into the night. For a moment, the valley was still and silent.
Shock held Simon in place, his breath rapid in his chest. He could see Aaron, Natan, and Matthew in the distance – the fire in their camp had died, but as his eyes adjusted once more, he could just make out their silhouettes in the light of the moon (a light that seemed so dim when compared to the one he had just witnessed). They must have fallen to their knees because they were slowly rising to their feet, apparently just as stunned as he was.
A small laugh bubbled up in Simon's throat, incredulous and joyful and breathless, and he surged forward, hurrying along the stream as quickly as he could, his weary limbs suddenly full of energy.
He could hear the others laughing in celebration somewhere behind him in the camp, but he was turned away from them now, moving back up the embankment, towards Bethlehem.
Towards the manger.
The end of his crutch dug into the soil, his good, right leg and his twisted left pounding the earth, faster than they ever had before, the knowledge of what lay before him driving him forward.
He wouldn't stop. Not for anything. He would see the Messiah with his own eyes.
The Savior of Israel. Of the world. His Savior.
The words repeated in his mind with every racing step, every beat of his heart.
And gradually, as he ran, his left knee began to bend and his ankle began to straighten, the joints loosening, the muscles shifting.
He nearly laughed again, tears of gratitude pooling in his eyes even as he smiled, but he kept going, he kept running, his steps steady and even in a way they never had been before. Drawing a deep breath, he loosened his hold on his crutch and tossed it away, unneeded now, letting it tumble into the grass.
A new surge of strength seemed to follow, and he ran all the faster, unbridled joy billowing up from the depths of his soul as he crested first one hill and then another, reaching the outskirts of Bethlehem to witness the moment of his Savior's birth, no longer broken, but whole and healed.
"Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel." -Isaiah 7:14 (New King James Version)