Dirty

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People don’t understand, I don’t think, just how complicated our work is. A shepherd’s work.

It’s hard work, it’s long hours, but there’s also a science to it.

I met a man from Alexandria, over in Egypt — a university man, he had never been outside the city before he came to Jerusalem; I was down there in Jerusalem for supplies — and in the course of conversation it became clear to me that he thought we shepherds were something like statues.

Mild-mannered do-nothings, standing peacefully on hillsides, leaning on our staffs and looking gentle.

That fellow, he could put in one week with us out working the flocks, and he would either plead for a vacation from all the hard work, or his brain would cramp up from all the information. Or both.

Sheep are so stupid, they have to be taken care of in every little detail.

Shepherding requires a system.

Sheep have no natural defenses; just about anything can kill and eat a sheep.

You have to find pools of water for sheep to drink from, because they’re scared of noisy, fast-moving water.

You have to feed the flock all year long, even though the climate changes and the food sources change.

You have to have a place for feeding indoors and out.

Your stable needs to face east so it gets the earliest sunlight of the day, and it needs to be situated on a slope or it’s a real pain to clean out — and it’s got to be kept clean and dry because moisture rots a sheep’s wool and a sheep’s hooves.

When a ewe is ready to give birth, you have to segregate her.

Or when a sheep is sick, you have to put it in a pen by itself.

But if you’ve got the flock out to pasture, you need another strategy — which is why we shepherds carry so much gear.

The picture that university fellow from Alexandria had in his head — where we just stand there in flowing robes with nothing but a staff — that’s hilarious.

Like, we carry wicker hurdles — some shepherds use a type of netting, but I prefer the wicker, “hurdles,” they’re called — to keep sheep separated.

And then from season to season, you feed sheep on different schedules.

In the summertime you drive them out to pasture at daybreak, because the grass is dewy and the sheep will eat more than at midday, when the grass is dried out.

About noon you move them to a shady place, under rocks or trees, and let them lie down.

Then they’ll graze again in the evening, until sunset.

And you have to guide the flock to stand facing a certain direction while they’re eating.

A sheep should always graze with the sun behind it, don’t you know.

Its head is very sensitive to heat — but it’s too dumb to turn around on its own.

Then at sunset, you lead the flock back to water, and then graze them again, because by now the grass is good again.

But after the autumn equinox, the schedule is completely different.

After the harvest, you want the flock eating the stubble, because consuming all that shattered grain will fatten them up for winter, and besides that, it improves the land for the next year’s planting because their manure gets trampled into the straw.

And then in the winter and spring, you have a different system again.

You let them sleep in, wait till the frost is off, then drive them out for one long all-day feeding, with just one watering about noon — that’s all they need in that part of the year.

Now do you want to know about breeding?

What time of year, and what you feed the rams, and what kind of water the ewes have to drink, and how old they have to be?

Do you realize that a ewe can trample her own lamb in the middle of the night if you don’t keep them separate?

And for a while, starting at about 10 days of age, lambs have to be tethered apart from each other, because when they play together they injure each other.

I can also tell you how to get a lamb to nurse — because some lambs won’t do it on their own.

And yet four months later, when they’re being weaned, some lambs have to be taught to eat because if you don’t, they will die of starvation.

And then with adults, you have to be careful where they eat and for how long, because a sheep will eat anything, healthy or not, and will keep on eating till he explodes if you don’t stop him.

I’m telling you: sheep are dumb; shepherds are smart.

* * *

But sheep and shepherds are alike in one major way: we’re dirty.

That, I think, is why people look down on us shepherds.

“Look down on” is not strong enough language.

People in the city despise us.

We’re like lepers to them. Outcasts.

You think I’m exaggerating?

We can’t go into the temple.

The religious leaders — the Pharisees, you know — won’t let us.

We would defile it, because we’ve been out in the fields, or in the pens and barns, working in the dirt and the manure and all the bodily fluids that happen when you deal with animals.

Of course there are ceremonial washings that you can go through, according to the religious authorities, but they’re so complicated and time-consuming that it’s hardly possible for a working shepherd.

And I would say, from my own experience on those few occasions when I’ve tried to qualify, that the Pharisees evaluate us more critically than they do people from other professions.

They know you’re a shepherd, and they scowl and squint and sigh and send you back to try again.

They call it being “ceremonially unclean.”

In fact, anybody who comes in contact with us is regarded as unclean.

Dirty, before God!

No shepherd has ever been part of the religious establishment — it’s unthinkable, because they say God considers us dirty.

Shepherds aren’t even allowed to be witnesses in court because we’re so detestable to God.

Which I don’t understand.

Father Abraham was a shepherd.

Moses was a shepherd.

King David was a shepherd.

I think those are pretty good credentials.

I might even say there’s a pattern here: God approves of the dirty ones. He chooses the dirty ones. He uses the dirty ones.

But in my world — with the Pharisees in charge of the temple — well, nobody was asking a dirty man’s opinion about dirty men.

And I confess, I finally gave up.

Gave up trying, gave up caring.

I was born a shepherd; I’ll die a shepherd.

I can’t meet the religious standards.

Can’t get clean.

Can’t spend my life in high anxiety about it.

I know there’s a God.

I learned about God.

I believe.

I recognize God is the Creator and the Master of life.

I want to please him, want to serve him.

But the rules are just unworkable for me.

* * *

So we were out in the fields, my group and I — you want one shepherd for every hundred short-hair sheep; if you’ve got fine-wool sheep, they need more attention, so you would only want 50 sheep to a shepherd, but we had short-hairs — we had a good flock, about 500 sheep; so there were the five of us.

Ziba, Gera, Shabbethai, Jotham, and me.

It was the time of year when you just live out in the fields, you don’t go home; it would be too complicated — which, frankly, is why so many shepherds have a bad family life, or no family life.

You can’t keep a wife that way, at least not a good wife.

So after the season, when you go into town, you find someone, and…

I know it’s not a great way to live, but it’s how we lived.

Anyway, we were living out in the fields.

We had no clue, no warning, that something was about to happen.

No idea that anything out of the ordinary was coming.

And it was dark. It was nighttime.

You don’t expect a blaze of light, like a huge fire or something, to suddenly light up the world.

We had the flock in a kind of meadow — we called it Jehosaphat’s Gully (it’s a joke, but that’s another story entirely) — but we liked to keep the flock there at night, because there were natural barriers around on three sides, rocks on two sides and a kind of cliff on the third side; and the sheep would more or less stay put; you could get by with two guys awake and three guys sleeping, and you sleep in shifts.

So I was awake, maybe dozing, I don’t really know anymore for sure, and Ziba was awake.

And all of a sudden, there was this light — like daylight, but only in one small place — and this guy is standing there.

I remember thinking, just for a split second: How did he sneak up on us?

It was like there was a huge torchlight on him, except he wasn’t carrying a torch — it was more like the light was coming from inside him.

Honestly, I would like to tell you I handled it well, but the truth is, this guy appeared, and I said, “Aah!” — so loud, I woke up the other three.

They stirred, they started up, they were grabbing for their sticks and their weapons.

I thought we were dead.

I thought this guy, this creature, whatever, was going to kill us — it was that weird.

We five, we’re making noise, we’re scrambling around.

And yet — in the middle of all this commotion — not one single sheep stirred.

And then, the guy opens his mouth.

He says, “Don’t be afraid.”

And his voice is strong, but it’s calm. It’s not like a command — Don’t be afraid, or I’ll rip your head off!

It’s, like, genuine.

And even though I’m squinting at him, my eyes are still trying to adjust to the light, I can see, his face is not the face of an attacker.

He’s almost smiling at us.

So he says, “I bring you good news, of great joy.”

And my guys are finally settling down a little, standing still — because this guy, this angel or whatever he is, isn’t coming after us, obviously.

“Good news of great joy,” he says, “that will be for all the people.”

And I remember thinking, in that split-second, What in the world is he talking about?

I looked at my guys. They’re looking at me, and at each other.

There’s a moment, there, where we’re just waiting.

Finally, this guy starts telling us this sort of story.

“Today,” he says, “in the town of David” — and gestures down toward Bethlehem — “a Savior has been born to you.”

And I’m thinking, A savior? What do we need to be saved from?

And frankly, furthermore, if he’s just been born, how is he going to help us get away from anything?

But then the guys says, “He’s Christ.”

I mean, he was speaking Aramaic; that was our language.

But the word he used was the word for Messiah, in the Hebrew. In Greek you say “Christ.”

Either way, it means “the anointed one” — which is what we had learned all along: someday God would send the Anointed One, the Messiah, to set his people free!

I mean, to hear that term — Christ — to hear this fellow say that the Christ had finally come — but he had just been born — that was a bizarre moment.

It was beyond believable. It was almost absurd.

But I think he knew we were going to think it was weird, because then he said there would be a sign — a guarantee: he said, “You’ll find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

A manger! A feed trough.

Totally bizarre.

You don’t find babies in feed troughs.

But before I could say You don’t find a baby in a feed trough!, the entire meadow lit up, like daylight — hundreds of these same kind of angel fellows were suddenly standing there — it looked to me like every sleeping sheep had an angel standing next to it.

And yet not a single sheep woke up.

They were as calm as could be.

It was just us shepherds who were getting hysterical.

And now all the angels began speaking in unison, like a choir — except sounding like they really meant it:

“Glory to God in the highest,” they said, “and on earth peace to men, on whom his favor rests.”

And then — bang — every one of them left the ground. They floated up. Their light went with them. They faded into the night sky.

I looked at Ziba and the others. My eyes took a minute to adjust to the darkness.

Jotham had tears in his eyes, he was so shook up.

Shabbethai was just blinking with his mouth wide open.

Nobody said anything. What could you say? It was the most freakish experience any of us had ever had — or even heard of.

Until finally, I guess Gera collected his wits enough to say Come on, let’s go to Bethlehem and see what’s happened.

God sent these angels, he said. They didn’t come from Athens! Let’s do what they said to do.

So we left Jotham with the sheep — he was so rattled he could hardly speak anyway, and the sheep were completely quiet — and we headed toward town.

We didn’t walk. We ran. This wasn’t like trying to shake off your middle-of-the-night fatigue. It was like we had early-morning energy.

We raced down into Bethlehem, took us about an hour and a half.

We figured the local innkeeper would know if anyone in town had delivered a baby that day — my experience is that in every town, the innkeeper has the most, and most immediate, information.

And if not the innkeeper, then the innkeeper’s wife.

You can always find the inn near the entrance to the town.

Sure enough, there it was.

Tiny place. Stone face on the house.

And then come to find out, the baby was right there: not in the inn; in the barn out back.

The inn was full; the parents of the baby had to stay in the barn, and the baby had actually been born in there.

I couldn’t help but notice the stench, as the innkeeper’s wife led us toward the barn.

Worse than just the usual animal and feed smells. I would say they were not keeping up on the cleaning schedule.

As she pulled on the handle of the barn door, the innkeeper’s wife muttered to us: “I know it’s not good. My husband has been sick; my sons have all left town, and I’ve been keeping up with the business.”

In other words, right: they were not keeping up on the cleaning of the barn.

Inside, with one unsteady lamp burning, I could see cobwebs strung from the beams and rafters.

Under my feet, I felt the slick slime of animal waste.

In one corner, there was kind of a makeshift sitting area, with a milking stool and a workbench.

You could see where someone had raked a rectangle clear, and a couple of blankets were spread out in the cleared area.

The man was on his feet, signaling us to be quiet, gesturing toward the floor.

A woman was sleeping on the blankets.

And there he was.

A baby boy. Also sleeping. Normal looking — wrapped up in fabric, the way they do.

Exactly the way the angel had told us.

It appeared that someone had found the freshest hay — actually, I would say, the least filthy hay — to fashion the feeding trough into a sort of bed.

You don’t find a baby in a feed trough — and yet here he was.

It had to be true.

This little baby was the Christ.

Which, I know, is unbelievable, because we all thought the Messiah would arrive with swords flashing and take over the country by force.

But after an angel appears to you, and then 500 angels appear to you, and after the impossible prediction they make to you comes true — when you find a baby in a feed trough — you don’t have much in the way of second thoughts.

You just take it at face value.

For some reason, God chose to send Messiah to be born in a barn, to sleep in a feed trough.

As dirty as I’ve gotten in my life, I can tell you, I’ve never slept in a feed trough, never known anybody to sleep in a feed trough.

Never heard of a child being born in a barn, actually.

Except this one.

Imagine if the angels had given the news to some Pharisees, and they had turned up in such a place. They would have gone to pieces.

Actually, sometimes I wonder if the angels did try the religious leaders first, but when they got a whiff of the place, they said, “No, thanks. This is highly irregular, and probably a sham.”

So the angels came to us!

* * *

We weren’t quiet enough. We were talking too loud, I think. The mother stirred, and at about the same moment, the baby’s eyes blinked open.

The woman sat up. I whispered “Sorry,” but she smiled at us.

And now that the baby was waking up, I felt free to get in closer.

I stooped down beside the manger, slipped my finger in under the baby’s palm.

His parents didn’t seem to mind — here we were, still smelling of sheep, more like this wretched barn than they were — but they seemed comfortable with me touching the baby.

I looked at the mother again and decided to take a chance.

I gestured into the manger with both my hands and said, “May I?”; and she nodded.

So I slipped my fingers — dirt under the nails, the wrinkles in my skin permanently brown — I slipped my fingers under the baby’s head, and under his little bottom, and lifted him up out of the feed trough.

Stray straw was hanging down from the fabric they had wrapped him in.

I drew him close to my face; his eyes weren’t even focusing yet.

He was just looking out into space, blinking and silent.

And pulling his face close to mine, I kissed his cheek.

Even in that miserable barn, his skin smelled that perfect baby smell.

And it stunned me, in that moment — it just suddenly hit me, and I almost couldn’t breathe for a second — that this grimy shepherd had touched the hand of God. Looked into the eyes of God. Kissed the face of God.

Not years from now, after I’ve died and gone to heaven.

Not even in the temple, in the holy place.

No. Right here. Right now. In a foul, dank barnhouse.

And he had called me to him here — to a place where I fit right in.

God hadn’t come as a military general or a rich man or a celebrity — he came weak, and needy.

Holding that fragile little fellow, I realized the very strange thing God had decided.

I had expected a hero, a conqueror, someone to meet all my needs; but he decided to turn everything around.

He decided to need me.

* * *

Well, we four couldn’t talk about anything else. We told everybody we saw — the next day and for weeks afterward.

People were amazed by the story — they could see in our faces that we weren’t crazy, that we were telling the truth.

God had sent an angel! Hundreds of angels!

They had told us — Messiah had finally arrived.

God had given us a sign, so we could know it was the truth.

Everything checked out.

It was real.

But it was a pretty incredible story, don’t you think?

People’s eyes would just get wide, and they would shake their heads, and as you walked away you would sense that they were trying to figure out whether to really buy it or not.

* * *

It was well into the next day before the four of us got back to our flocks.

Jotham was pacing back and forth, wondering what had happened — we finally got him settled down.

But here’s the strange thing: those sheep were completely at peace.

They slept through the night, when they woke up they grazed — Jotham was in a frenzy, but the sheep were happy.

I don’t know what else to tell you.

I can tell you, from that day to this, I don’t feel dirty.

Not before God, I don’t.

He didn’t choose Caesar to get the news first. He didn’t choose Herod. He didn’t choose the Sanhedrin. Or even the university fellow from Alexandria.

He chose us — wretched workers, outcasts, quote-unquote unclean people — to be the first to know.

He chose our life — a life of dirt, smelly and ugly — for Messiah to live.

I don’t know why — we had nothing to offer in the way of gifts, and he certainly didn’t get any extra status from having us as his first visitors; and it made no sense for Messiah to arrive in such a foul place. He could have done way better.

But I guess somehow, for some reason, God decided that regular everyday ordinary people, and even ugly dirty unloved people, should have a chance.

So he would start out life in the middle of the mess. Right where we were.

* * *

Since that night, I’ve had Pharisees challenge me on the story, but I know what I know.

I know it makes the religious types a little crazy, but Messiah didn’t come in through the religious door.

He came in through the barn door.

Standing in that barn, reeking of filth, looking at that little guy sleeping on soiled hay in that sad wooden feed trough, I confess I thought to myself, This doesn’t look like a Messiah.

This doesn’t even look like a religious leader.

Actually, to tell you the truth, I think he’d probably make a good shepherd.

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