The  Shepherds

    "And there were in the same country shepherds watching, and keeping the night-watches over their flock.  And behold, an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the brightness of God shone round about them:  and they feared with a great fear.  And the angel said to them: Fear not:  for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, that shall be to all the people: for this day is born to you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David.  And this shall be a sign unto you: you shall find the infant wrapped in swaddling-clothes, and laid in a manger.  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying: Glory to God in the Highest; and on earth peace to men of good will."  

    The village of the shepherds is situated on a very pleasant plain, about a quarter of a league to the north of Bethlehem, and in the depth of the valley is the celebrated field, where these shepherds were grazing their flocks on Christmas night.  According to grave authors, both sacred and profane, the appearance of the angels to the shepherds was not the only prodigy that signalized the birth of the infant God.  They relate that, during that holy night, the vines of Engaddi blossomed; that, at Comus, the Temple of Peace suddenly fell, and the oracles of the demons were silenced for ever.  The mere birth of our Lord, was a sentence of banishment for those heathen deities, who had hitherto been permitted to deliver oracles.  

    The marvellous vision had disappeared, the heavenly music had ceased, and the shepherds, leaning on their crooks, still listened for a renewal of those ravishing sounds.  When they could hear nothing more save the night breeze murmuring through the valley, and that they could no longer discover in the deep blue sky a single radiant point which fancy could convert into an angel, the shepherds took counsel together, and said to one another, "Let us go to Bethlehem, and see this word that is come to pass".  Then, taking baskets, with such simple presents as their cabins could afford, they left their flocks to their own guidance for a while, and set out by the glimmering light of the stars for the little city of David.  At sight of the poor stable, they felt their hearts burn within them, like the disciples of Emmaus, and they said to each other, "Perhaps this is the place".  For they knew that the divine child who was born to them had not seen the light under gilded ceilings, nor was laid in a royally adorned cradle.  The angel had made no such announcement.  They advanced, then, with faith, hope and love, towards that deserted stable, where they well deserved to find the promised Saviour, since they came to seek him with pure hearts and single mind.  

    Looking into the cave in order to assure themselves that they had really reached the term of their nocturnal pilgrimage, these men of good will discovered Him who came to preach the Gospel to the poor, and abolish the curse of slavery, under the humble form of a little babe peacefully slumbering in his crib.  

    The Virgin, bent over her new-born infant, was regarding him with touching humility and profound tenderness.  Joseph stood close by, his venerable head bowed down before that adopted son, who was truly God.  A ray of moonlight shone on the divine group, and on the reddish wall of rock; without, the earth was calmly reposing in the bright, silvery light.  "The Persians call Christmas night scheb jaldai, the clear and luminous night, because of the descent of the angels."  

    "This is the place",  said the shepherds to themselves; and prostrating themselves, respectfully, before the manger of the King of kings, they offered to the infant God "the mite" and the homage of the poor.  There they related the apparition of the angels, their ravishing hymns, and their joyful words.  Joseph admired this divine manifestation, and Mary, who heard the simple tale in silence, treasured up every word within her heart.  This duty fulfilled, and their mission ended, the shepherds of Juda retired praising God, and published in the mountains the marvels of that holy night.  They who heard them were seized with astonishment, and said to themselves, "Can it be possible?  Are we, then, gone back to the days of Abraham, when angels visited shepherds?"  

    Perchance it was these tales, told at evening in the skirt of the woods or in the deep ravine, whilst the camels drank together at the lonely spring, that induced one of the Arab tribes to deify Mary and the Child.  The sweet image of the Virgin, with her Son on her knee, was painted on one of the pillars of the Caaba, and solemnly placed amongst the tree hundred and sixty deities of the three Arabias.  In the time of Mahomet they were still seen there, as we find from grave Arab writers.  "El Azraki quotes the ocular testimony of many respectable persons", says Burckhart, "in proof of a remarkable fact which has not hitherto been noticed, as far as I am aware.  It is, that the figure of the Virgin Mary, with the young Asia (Jesus) on her knee, was carved as a divinity on one of the nearest pillars of the Caaba."  

                                                                     (Abbe Orsini)

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