This is a dramatic reading, suitable for a Christmastime church performance. It was first written and performed in England in 1983 and is intended to be read with a mild Cockney accent.
The imaginary 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 lad?
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 don’t 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