“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8).
I try to imagine night in an ancient land and myself in it, millennia before the mechanical hum of machines and motors entered the world. I try to think of the most natural quiet I have ever known, maybe after a fresh nighttime snow. Maybe the expectant hush that falls over the crowd as the houselights go down and the conductor raises his baton. Maybe a holy hour in the dead of night when it’s just me and Jesus—that still quiet that is filled with presence, the holy, mystical touch of God.
When I close my eyes, I imagine I am one of the shepherds, the youngest of them, very little, nothing but a child, and the whole world exists for me, just as it does for all children.
The air is clear and chilly, and there is dew on the grass. I hear the faint movement of the herds, the soft night sounds of a world at rest. Herd animals have an aroma of their own at night; they take on the warm and reassuring smell of sleeping beasts—it is as though their very slumber has a fragrance. I am quiet and calm and at peace in all of this, even in my own nothingness. As it often does, my gaze turns toward the heavens, the glory of the stars, the vast, hovering universe stretching out over the fields, over me, and my mind is filled with a child’s wonder.
Suddenly the sky erupts with light and singing. It is frightening, confusing, and I shield myself. What could this be? There are voices and beings, brightness beyond imagining, sounds I’ve never heard, and after some moments the sky goes dark again, the stars reappear, but nothing will ever be the same. A startled silence falls over the other shepherds and then I hear the word—though I barely know what it means: “angel.”
Everyone starts running, and I cannot understand what is going on nor do I know where they are going, but I follow along with the others. What else would a child do?
It is dark, but our feet fly. We are light and quick. We do not miss a step. Until in the distance I see we are approaching a cave—only it is illuminated, not cold, dark, damp but a warm, living, glowing sort of place. As we draw nearer, the other shepherds slow down, and when we are quite close, they stop and kneel. I kneel too. I think I should keep my head down, but I want to sneak a glance. There is something—someone—ahead in that cave. Dare I look? A woman, a baby. Didn’t the angel say something of this, something of infants and that other word so inviting and mysterious, “savior”?
We are captivated, speechless. Then one, the oldest and wisest of us, thinks to approach this woman, and the woman says, “Wait a moment,” and then she turns to look directly at me. She gestures for me to come forward. And I can see the head shepherd is taken aback, confused by this, as if to say, “What could you possibly want with her?” He is a humble, good man, hardworking and honest; it’s disorienting to see him confounded.
But I go. Though I have no sense of what is taking place or who she is, it seems I cannot resist her invitation to approach, and when I get closer, I see she’s so beautiful and lovely and superb in every way. She smiles at me, and I draw nearer. We look down on the baby in her arms together.
I say, “He’s so small.”
And she says, “Yes, babies are very little.”
“He’s so soft,” I say, and she smiles and nods. “He smells good,” I say, and she laughs a little.
“Yes, so sweet,” she says. Then somehow I am in her lap and so is the baby. She is holding me, and I am holding him. And then he takes my finger—curls his little fist around my own child’s finger—and squeezes. And I look at this beautiful woman and say, “Look! He’s touching me.”
Her whole expression changes, deepens, and she says, “Yes, he is.”
He is touching me, touching my heart, in this prayer, in this meditation, and in that slightest connection, sending a world of healing, oceans of grace, a universe of glory pulsing through an infant’s grip.
Child, how I love you!
Then I remember the question I had been asking: “Why did you come? Why pour all your glory and power into one little baby?”
And he says to me, not in words, but through that little innocent fist, this helpless little creature, “So I could touch you, flesh of my flesh.”
I believe him down to my bones.
—Excerpted from Jesus Approaches by Elizabeth M. Kelly
Image: “The Adoration of the Shepherds” by Giorgione, public domain via Wikimedia Commons