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CHAPTER XI



A mile and a half, it may be two miles, southeast of Bethlehem,
there is a plain separated from the town by an intervening swell
of the mountain. Besides being well sheltered from the north winds,
the vale was covered with a growth of sycamore, dwarf-oak, and pine
trees, while in the glens and ravines adjoining there were thickets
of olive and mulberry; all at this season of the year invaluable
for the support of sheep, goats, and cattle, of which the wandering
flocks consisted.

At the side farthest from the town, close under a bluff, there was
an extensive marah, or sheepcot, ages old. In some long-forgotten
foray, the building had been unroofed and almost demolished.
The enclosure attached to it remained intact, however, and that
was of more importance to the shepherds who drove their charges
thither than the house itself. The stone wall around the lot was
high as a man's head, yet not so high but that sometimes a panther
or a lion, hungering from the wilderness, leaped boldly in. On the
inner side of the wall, and as an additional security against
the constant danger, a hedge of the rhamnus had been planted,
an invention so successful that now a sparrow could hardly
penetrate the overtopping branches, armed as they were with
great clusters of thorns hard as spikes.

The day of the occurrences which occupy the preceding chapters,
a number of shepherds, seeking fresh walks for their flocks, led
them up to this plain; and from early morning the groves had been
made ring with calls, and the blows of axes, the bleating of sheep
and goats, the tinkling of bells, the lowing of cattle, and the
barking of dogs. When the sun went down, they led the way to the
marah, and by nightfall had everything safe in the field; then they
kindled a fire down by the gate, partook of their humble supper,
and sat down to rest and talk, leaving one on watch.

There were six of these men, omitting the watchman; and afterwhile
they assembled in a group near the fire, some sitting, some lying
prone. As they went bareheaded habitually, their hair stood out in
thick, coarse, sunburnt shocks; their beard covered their throats,
and fell in mats down the breast; mantles of the skin of kids
and lambs, with the fleece on, wrapped them from neck to knee,
leaving the arms exposed; broad belts girthed the rude garments
to their waists; their sandals were of the coarsest quality;
from their right shoulders hung scrips containing food and
selected stones for slings, with which they were armed; on the
ground near each one lay his crook, a symbol of his calling and
a weapon of offence.

Such were the shepherds of Judea! In appearance, rough and savage
as the gaunt dogs sitting with them around the blaze; in fact,
simple-minded, tender-hearted; effects due, in part, to the
primitive life they led, but chiefly to their constant care
of things lovable and helpless.

They rested and talked, and their talk was all about their flocks,
a dull theme to the world, yet a theme which was all the world to
them. If in narrative they dwelt long upon affairs of trifling
moment; if one of them omitted nothing of detail in recounting
the loss of a lamb, the relation between him and the unfortunate
should be remembered: at birth it became his charge, his to keep
all its days, to help over the floods, to carry down the hollows,
to name and train; it was to be his companion, his object of thought
and interest, the subject of his will; it was to enliven and share
his wanderings; in its defense he might be called on to face the
lion or robber--to die.

The great events, such as blotted out nations and changed the
mastery of the world, were trifles to them, if perchance they came
to their knowledge. Of what Herod was doing in this city or that,
building palaces and gymnasia, and indulging forbidden practises,
they occasionally heard. As was her habit in those days, Rome did
not wait for people slow to inquire about her; she came to them.
Over the hills along which he was leading his lagging herd, or in
the fastnesses in which he was hiding them, not unfrequently the
shepherd was startled by the blare of trumpets, and, peering out,
beheld a cohort, sometimes a legion, in march; and when the
glittering crests were gone, and the excitement incident to
the intrusion over, he bent himself to evolve the meaning of
the eagles and gilded globes of the soldiery, and the charm of
a life so the opposite of his own.

Yet these men, rude and simple as they were, had a knowledge and
a wisdom of their own. On Sabbaths they were accustomed to purify
themselves, and go up into the synagogues, and sit on the benches
farthest from the ark. When the chazzan bore the Torah round,
none kissed it with greater zest; when the sheliach read the text,
none listened to the interpreter with more absolute faith; and none
took away with them more of the elder's sermon, or gave it more
thought afterwards. In a verse of the Shema they found all the
learning and all the law of their simple lives--that their Lord
was One God, and that they must love him with all their souls.
And they loved him, and such was their wisdom, surpassing that
of kings.

While they talked, and before the first watch was over, one by
one the shepherds went to sleep, each lying where he had sat.

The night, like most nights of the winter season in the hill
country, was clear, crisp, and sparkling with stars. There was
no wind. The atmosphere seemed never so pure, and the stillness
was more than silence; it was a holy hush, a warning that heaven
was stooping low to whisper some good thing to the listening earth.

By the gate, hugging his mantle close, the watchman walked; at times
he stopped, attracted by a stir among the sleeping herds, or by
a jackal's cry off on the mountain-side. The midnight was slow
coming to him; but at last it came. His task was done; now for the
dreamless sleep with which labor blesses its wearied children! He
moved towards the fire, but paused; a light was breaking around
him, soft and white, like the moon's. He waited breathlessly.
The light deepened; things before invisible came to view; he saw
the whole field, and all it sheltered. A chill sharper than that
of the frosty air--a chill of fear--smote him. He looked up;
the stars were gone; the light was dropping as from a window
in the sky; as he looked, it became a splendor; then, in terror,
he cried,

"Awake, awake!"

Up sprang the dogs, and, howling, ran away.

The herds rushed together bewildered.

The men clambered to their feet, weapons in hand.

"What is it?" they asked, in one voice.

"See!" cried the watchman, "the sky is on fire!"

Suddenly the light became intolerably bright, and they covered
their eyes, and dropped upon their knees; then, as their souls
shrank with fear, they fell upon their faces blind and fainting,
and would have died had not a voice said to them,

"Fear not!"

And they listened.

"Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy,
which shall be to all people."

The voice, in sweetness and soothing more than human, and low and
clear, penetrated all their being, and filled them with assurance.
They rose upon their knees, and, looking worshipfully, beheld in
the centre of a great glory the appearance of a man, clad in a
robe intensely white; above its shoulders towered the tops of
wings shining and folded; a star over its forehead glowed with
steady lustre, brilliant as Hesperus; its hands were stretched
towards them in blessing; its face was serene and divinely beautiful.

They had often heard, and, in their simple way, talked, of angels;
and they doubted not now, but said, in their hearts, The glory of
God is about us, and this is he who of old came to the prophet by
the river of Ulai.

Directly the angel continued:

"For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior,
which is Christ the Lord!"

Again there was a rest, while the words sank into their minds.

"And this shall be a sign unto you," the annunciator said next.
"Ye shall find the babe, wrapped in swaddling-clothes, lying in
a manger."

The herald spoke not again; his good tidings were told; yet he
stayed awhile. Suddenly the light, of which he seemed the centre,
turned roseate and began to tremble; then up, far as the men could
see, there was flashing of white wings, and coming and going of
radiant forms, and voices as of a multitude chanting in unison,

"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will towards
men!"

Not once the praise, but many times.

Then the herald raised his eyes as seeking approval of one far off;
his wings stirred, and spread slowly and majestically, on their upper
side white as snow, in the shadow vari-tinted, like mother-of-pearl;
when they were expanded many cubits beyond his stature, he arose
lightly, and, without effort, floated out of view, taking the
light up with him. Long after he was gone, down from the sky fell
the refrain in measure mellowed by distance, "Glory to God in the
highest, and on earth peace, good-will towards men."

When the shepherds came fully to their senses, they stared at each
other stupidly, until one of them said, "It was Gabriel, the Lord's
messenger unto men."

None answered.

"Christ the Lord is born; said he not so?"

Then another recovered his voice, and replied, "That is what he
said."

"And did he not also say, in the city of David, which is our
Bethlehem yonder. And that we should find him a babe in
swaddling-clothes?"

"And lying in a manger."

The first speaker gazed into the fire thoughtfully, but at length
said, like one possessed of a sudden resolve, "There is but one
place in Bethlehem where there are mangers; but one, and that is
in the cave near the old khan. Brethren, let us go see this thing
which has come to pass. The priests and doctors have been a long
time looking for the Christ. Now he is born, and the Lord has
given us a sign by which to know him. Let us go up and worship
him."

"But the flocks!"

"The Lord will take care of them. Let us make haste."

Then they all arose and left the marah.

* * * * * *

Around the mountain and through the town they passed, and came to
the gate of the khan, where there was a man on watch.

"What would you have?" he asked.

"We have seen and heard great things to-night," they replied.

"Well, we, too, have seen great things, but heard nothing. What did
you hear?"

"Let us go down to the cave in the enclosure, that we may be sure;
then we will tell you all. Come with us, and see for yourself."

"It is a fool's errand."

"No, the Christ is born."

"The Christ! How do you know?"

"Let us go and see first."

The man laughed scornfully.

"The Christ indeed! How are you to know him?"

"He was born this night, and is now lying in a manger, so we
were told; and there is but one place in Bethlehem with mangers."

"The cave?"

"Yes. Come with us."

They went through the court-yard without notice, although there
were some up even then talking about the wonderful light. The door
of the cavern was open. A lantern was burning within, and they
entered unceremoniously.

"I give you peace," the watchman said to Joseph and the Beth
Dagonite. "Here are people looking for a child born this night,
whom they are to know by finding him in swaddling-clothes and
lying in a manger."

For a moment the face of the stolid Nazarene was moved; turning away,
he said, "The child is here."

They were led to one of the mangers, and there the child was. The
lantern was brought, and the shepherds stood by mute. The little
one made no sign; it was as others just born.

"Where is the mother?" asked the watchman.

One of the women took the baby, and went to Mary, lying near,
and put it in her arms. Then the bystanders collected about
the two.

"It is the Christ!" said a shepherd, at last.

"The Christ!" they all repeated, falling upon their knees in worship.
One of them repeated several times over,

"It is the Lord, and his glory is above the earth and heaven."

And the simple men, never doubting, kissed the hem of the mother's
robe, and with joyful faces departed. In the khan, to all the people
aroused and pressing about them, they told their story; and through
the town, and all the way back to the marah, they chanted the refrain
of the angels, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace,
good-will towards men!"

The story went abroad, confirmed by the light so generally seen;
and the next day, and for days thereafter, the cave was visited
by curious crowds, of whom some believed, though the greater part
laughed and mocked.





Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace
Category:
General Fiction
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