Another Christmas monologue

[ See also, the Shepherd's Tale | The Innkeepers Story | The Soldier's Story]

THE SHEPHERD'S TALE - A Fantasy for Christmas

by Michael Buss

This is a dramatic reading, suitable for Christmastime church performance. It was first written and
performed in England in 1983. It is intended to be read with a Cockney accent.

The scene is a Judean hillside, near Bethlehem. It is night. Two 
shepherds rest by a glowing fire.
My word, it's nippy tonight. Put some more word on the fire will 
you? Haven't felt so cold for weeks. That's better. No, I don't 
think I'm ill - just shaken by it all. Sheep are restless, 
though. They can't be that hungry. Plenty of grass after these 
spring rains.
Oh well, I think I'll just say a prayer and then settle down for 
the night. God, those stars are bright. Brilliant - the way they 
shine like diamonds in the inky velvet. Brilliant the way you 
made them. I'm not surprised you said it was good, Lord. 
Now what is it? Hey, Josh, check it out. There's something, or 
someone, coming up the gully. Over there, look. By that patch of 
scrub. Careful now, I've had enough of wolves for this month.
Hey, Josh. It's okay - it's a fellah. I can see him now. I think 
he's coming our way. He seems to know where he's going. As long 
as he don't spook the sheep.
Now then, you be careful.
Aye, Shalom to you too. Darned lucky you didn't disturb my flock. 
I don't like to see strangers round at night. Anyway, sit down. 
There's nowhere else you can go tonight - unless you want to end 
up as wolf meat! That's Josh. My hired hand. One day he'll make a 
shepherd - if he don't bunk off first. Honest, I tell you, if I 
didn't pay him I don't think he'd ever get out of bed. Ay, Josh 
He can take a joke! Good job really. Fifty years I've been out 
here in these hills and I can feel every one of them in my bones.
You know what? If one o' them sheep gets lost, you know who stays 
up all night looking for it? Me, that's who. Not him. Lazy 
blighter. Three of 'em had foot rot last week. Not much fun 
really - you have to cut the hoof right back to the good stuff 
underneath. They donít like it - but neither does Josh. Trouble 
is the smell: "Too smelly," he says. So where's he when the 
work's to be done? "I'll get some more water" say he. And then I 
find him napping. And when he sleeps ... honest, I reckon a bear 
could walk over him and he wouldn't know. Never mind. You'll not 
be wanting to know about Josh, eh?
Funny - you know. Him - Jesus. He used to talk about people like 
us - Josh and me. I don't know if he'd ever been a shepherd - but 
he knew a lot about it. We were at the market in Jerusalem 
coupl'a years back when he was there - telling stories. 
D'you hear that one about the one lost sheep - you know - when 
the other ninety-nine were all safe in the pen? "Well" I says, 
"Josh, I know a bit about that. Many's the time I've done that. 
Struggling across streams, coat torn by the thorns - tired out - 
just to get one little lamb back. All night I've been at it at
times." I nudged him. "Hear that", I says. "Josh - that's what 
shepherdin's about." D'you know what he was doing? Stuffin' 'is 
face - and lookin' at girls. Look, look at him now - sound 
asleep. Just when I was going to get him to brew a drink. He'll 
be like that till sun up. Lazy toad. Ah, well.
Good job I've got you as company isn't it? 
Actually - I can't get him out of my mind - Jesus. Everytime I 
shut my eyes I can see hanging there - dying - stretched out like 
a dying sheep - already being ripped by the jackals. And then I 
remember what he said. "I am the Good Shepherd". Well, he was 
good. Though as I said, I don't know if ever he was a shepherd. 
But this is the bit. "The Good Shepherd lays down his life for 
the sheep." 
No good telling Josh that. Scare him off for keeps. I've seen it 
though. I knew one guy - rough, crude with people - but he loved 
his sheep. 
I think he preferred sheep to people any day. "Not as stupid as 
people" he said.
Probably right. After all, people should know better. Point is - 
he died for his sheep. Lousy Samaritans they were. Tried to steal 
them. And he fought three of them off - single-handed. But they 
got him that night and clubbed him to death. It was me that found 
him - they'd smashed his face in, stolen his coat and run him 
through. He laid his life down for the sheep. Like Jesus said - 
like Jesus did. But he didn't have any sheep ...!
Hey look - you sure you don't mind me telling you all his? You 
look done in! Honest - if you want to kip - like Josh - you just 
turn in. 
Oh - good. I hoped you'd say that. I've got to get it off my 
chest with someone. 
Look, see the lights over there, on the ridge? Bethlehem, that. 
Got an aunt who lives there. I see her from time to time. Don't 
live there myself - but I used to when I was about nineteen. 
Scruffy little hole it is really. But it was home, so it was 
good. That's where He was born - Jesus. My (laughs) that was a 
night to remember. You've never seen so many people about these 
parts - all come to get on the register because our Lord and 
Master Caesar says so! Honestly I don't know what they thought of 
Bethlehem. David's town! It sounds right royal, eh? But no-one 
wanted to be there, with rat-faced Romans pompously writing down 
our names and taking our money. I'm not boring you am I? (Smiles)
Well, we didn't really know what was happening till later. It 
seems this couple came into the village - and her pregnant - 
about to drop, sorry, deliver. It's being with sheep, you know! 
As a matter of fact we (there were four of us) were camped out 
here on this very rise. We had a bigger flock then. With Herod's 
new Temple under way the priests could cope with more sheep than 
usual. Rather like opening a bigger shop - you sell more. So lamb 
was in great demand. 
Mind you our sheep have always been special. Bred for Passover 
Time - the very best. That's why we're down at the moment. I only 
got back today from taking them into town for slaughter. Ironic - 
really. Spend my life, I do, feeding, caring, nursing and 
defending them - then I take them by the score to die. 
But that's what it's all about - living to die. Dying to live. 
Anyway, I was telling you about that night. The flock had settled 
down well, and the two sick ewes were with us near the fire so's 
we could keep an eye on them. Abel was on watch and the rest of 
us were just settling - looking at the sky - the same incredible 
sky as you see tonight. The half moon was low in the west, 
casting long dark shadows across the silvery rocks. The grass was 
crisp and the munching of the sheep formed a continuous, even 
comforting, backcloth of sound. I think it was when they all 
stopped,and we sat up, startled by the silence that we knew the 
night was filled with mystery. Which of us saw him first, I don't 
know - but as our eyes pierced the crystal blackness, searching 
for the explanation, he appeared. 
Like a white mist, just a stone's throw away and some ten feet 
off the ground. You hear tell shepherds' talk of ghosts and make 
believe they've seen them. Mostly they're just kidding. But this 
was real. And I tell you, we was scared, yet the sheep never 
moved. They were completely calm. And then the mist seemed to 
condense and gradually form into a solid looking figure of a man 
- yet a man unlike any you've ever seen. Brilliant, glistening 
white, shedding silvery light all around. It seemed to bathe us 
in its purity and for a moment Abel, Ben and Jacob - all of us - 
seemed clean - right through! 
Then we fell to the ground stricken with terror at this 
apparition, knowing that in a moment we would be dead. Then he 
spoke, with a voice as clear as bells, as soft as wool, as smooth 
as milk - it was as though if God had a voice, and this was it. 
And he said "Don't be afraid!". 
You might as well tell a mad dog to be still or a storm to abate 
as tell us not to be afraid. Yet even as his words faded, we felt 
our fear melt into peace and we were afraid no longer. 
Now I know you'll think I'm making this up but as sure as eggs 
is eggs this is what he said. "I've got good news for you - for 
everyone. But today (and I mean 33 years ago) in the town of 
David, the Messiah has been born. 
Old Abel - you don't know him, but he's as hard-nosed as they 
come - he started talking to this - this - angel. Honest, that's 
what he was - the angel of God - and he said, "Okay, if what you 
say is right, whereabouts in Bethlehem is this baby? And how can 
we be sure? After all, as far as I know, there's no-one special 
in town just now. And all babies look much the same!"
I says to myself, "You can't talk to angels like that He'll turn 
you into a pillar of stone, Abel old son." But that angel 
carried on just as if he'd been expecting the question all along. 
"Here's the sign. You will find the baby wrapped in rags, lying 
in a feeding trough." Now I know every barn and stable in that 
village. There's not one where I haven't been a dozen times 
to help with calving, or tending a sick ewe. And I knew, if this 
was true, it wouldn't take us long to find a baby in a manger. 
But we didn't move. We just stared at that angel.
And then, we saw a sight I don't believe I'll ever see again 
outside heaven itself. For every star in the sky seemed to move. 
Displaced from their spheres they rolled around the skies like a 
swarm of bees. From every inch of heaven, a maelstrom of whirling 
lights gathered itself and came closer, closer. And we saw, as 
they came, that they weren't stars at all, but angels, just like 
the one in front of us - but further off. Thousands upon 
thousands of angels. They filled the ridge, down in the gully, 
and mounting up, up, up into the sky. They were the most 
beautiful creatures you've ever seen - wings more magnificent 
than an eagles. Faces so gentle and kind. And the golden glow of 
the glory of God filled the fields of Bethlehem. 
And then they sang. Till I die - I shall never hear music like 
it. It seemed to roll in from afar - a faint fragrance in the 
breeze, like the distant music of the sea. But it came nearer and 
nearer, as that angelic choir assembled, and the sound swelled, 
chord upon chord, pitch upon pitch. Ebbing, flowing, falling, 
rising - yet higher; ethereal, mysterious, resonating every leaf, 
shivering every blade, transmuting the very elements into gold. 
It was the melody of majesty - the harmony of heaven fusing us 
into the very heart of God in its symphonic embrace. 
"Glory to God in the highest," they sang. "And on earth peace 
towards men on whom his favour rests. "
[Tears begin to roll down his cheeks] 
So we reached out our hands to touch them, to be like them, to go 
with them - but slowly - as though each one must return to the 
star from whence it came - they were no more.  Just the crisp, 
cold night. And then we cried like babies - for very joy. 
[Struggles to retain composure] 
I'm sorry - you must forgive me. It was all so long ago. Should 
have got over it by now. But then we went to Bethlehem - the very 
pathway you've just come along. It didn't take us long to find 
the grubby old barn at the back of the inn. And he was there - 
just like the angel said. He wasn't very big - 6 or 7lbs I'd say. 
I remember he was lying in the manger when we arrived. You know, 
his mother seemed to expect us.
His mother said "We're going to call him JESUS". And I said, "I 
like that. I think the angels would like that too". And she 
seemed to understand. We gave them one of our lambs as a present. 
It was all we had. It didn't give any trouble, didn't make any 
fuss, just settled there in the straw - two little lambs 
together. Perhaps - an infant shepherd - with an infant sheep. 
Those were marvellous days. We were only shepherds but we felt 
like prophets, like Amos must have felt. Wherever we went we 
said, "We've seen him. We've seen the Messiah. He's here." 
Oh, the throb of excitement that filled the village gossip! God 
has visited his people. 
But now p'raps you'll understand why I feel so old, and tired and 
miserable. D'you understand? That Jesus - the One who talked 
about shepherds, and saving people and living for ever - I know 
it was him - the baby. And I don't know what God is up to, or 
even if it was all a dream, a nightmare.  But he's dead. Our 
hopes have died on a Roman gibbet - just these three days ago.
Though I think it's made me love my sheep even more.
All I know is this - if I can be a shepherd just a fraction as 
good as him - it will be but a debt of gratitude.
Now look - the fire's going down and I've wearied you with 
my tale. I'll just give it a poke and put on these sticks. There 
- now. Come closer and warm your hands. 
The stranger moved closer to the fire, his hood falling from his 
face as he extended his hands into the warmth.
The shepherd blinked as if stirring at old memories. Had they not 
met before?
But when, in the light of the crackling fire, on the same 
hillside where once he saw angels, he saw nail prints in the 
stranger's hands, he finally understood.
End of play

[ See also, the Shepherd's Tale | The Innkeepers Story | The Soldier's Story]