I am writing this one for myself as much as anyone else, and I’m far from having mastered it. But the season of departures is here: the new academic term is beckoning many youngsters, and you might be about to wave off your son or daughter. The reality is, no one prepares you for it! The emotional blow is rarely spoken of, and so we’re left to work it out for ourselves. It’s almost like a second childbirth; this time we’re releasing them into the big wide world in a different kind of way, in that we won’t be there to hold them. If you are a mum you will know this isn’t far-fetched.
So here’s the hope I have to offer, for if not now, we will in the future face physical distance between ourselves and loved ones, and an accompanying sadness. The thing is, God doesn’t ask us to put them down – we will always hold them in our hearts, and that’s what he does with us. Somehow we are alongside them with our love; affirmation or rejection can be felt across the miles, and we celebrate continued contact. The apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians on being together while apart: “For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit.” (Colossians 2:5). That was in the days before Facebook Messenger and mobile phones… we really are very blessed, though it might not feel like that in the early days of adjustment!
Of course one day we will be separated from loved ones with no means of contact, and even Jesus seemed upset by this when faced with the death of his friend Lazarus. We read ‘Jesus wept’ (John 11:35) when seeing where his friend Lazarus had been laid. On witnessing the sorrow of others, ‘he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled’. (John 11:33). He is the best one to journey on with, all our days. A “man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” we can confide in him everything that we’re feeling. He won’t think us weak for it, or deficient in any way (though aren’t we all?); being honest with him is actually a strength. Connecting with him in all circumstance is surely the way to go.
Most of us are familiar with the words, ‘never will I leave you, never will I forsake you’, but I understand this translates more accurately, ‘never never will I leave you, never never will I forsake you.’ Charles Spurgeon, in a sermon titled “Never! Never! Never! Never! Never!” went further, stating five negatives are more appropriate:
‘I have no doubt you are aware that our translation does not convey the whole force of the original, and that it would hardly be possible in English to give the full weight of the Greek. We might render it, “He hath said, I will never, never leave thee; I will never, never, never forsake thee;” for, though that would be not a literal, but rather a free rendering, yet, as there are five negatives in the Greek, we do not know how to give their force in any other way. Two negatives nullify each other in our language; but here, in the Greek, they intensify the meaning following one after another. “Never! Never! Never! Never! Never!”’
The reality for the believer is that we are never alone, and God wants us to engage with him and tell him how we’re feeling, whatever our circumstances. He is able to sustain us. I believe he doesn’t just want us to get through this time – he wants us to feel blessed and contented and alive. It might not happen overnight, but he’s the God of all comfort and he will answer our prayers. We must just keep talking to him, one day at a time.
‘Can you write me a story?’ asked a little girl we were fostering.
And so I did, though she wasn’t around long enough to witness it. Writing the story was a kind of therapy for me after she moved on.
When living here, bedtime stories were a new thing for her, and she’d listen well, her wide-eyed wonder reminding me of what storytelling is really about. I hope she gets to hear this story soon and she’ll sense the love that went into it.
But this book isn’t just for her, or indeed for foster children. Every child has to step out of comfortable nests of so many kinds, feeling fear, sensing disaster, believing themselves to be completely alone. This book is about bravery, facing life’s challenges and learning to trust.
I have enjoyed crafting a story from a natural metaphor – did you know that blackbirds often care for fledglings who are unrelated to them? (You’ll find my source for this at the end of the book).
I’ve also enjoyed opening up my paint palette again, and I’m beginning to find my way in illustration… I have a young person to thank for that.
Don’t you love it when nature takes you by surprise? There I was this morning, walking a well-trodden route of ours, when a chatter of sparrows burst out from a nearby bush and into the air, disturbed no doubt by the dogs. There, in the middle of this group, was a lunar-white sparrow, quietly glowing amongst its flock. They landed in a huddle, giving me just long enough to take a mental snapshot, savour a brief moment, then they were off. Of course, I stood and looked to see exactly where they had gone, but they’d dived behind a high fence and showed no signs of emerging.
A fleeting glimpse of something special, as so many of our nature encounters are.
I have now looked into ‘white sparrows’ and understand they are incredibly rare – from ‘one in a million’ perhaps, if it were a true albino sparrow to ‘still a great find’ if leucistic.
The bird’s striking plumage makes it vulnerable to attack, and if it’s an albino its survival chances aren’t great; ‘Most albino birds do not live long enough to reach sexual maturity and reproduce. The majority of albino birds are thought to die soon after they fledge.’
We’re unlikely to know which it is, and really it doesn’t matter. I enjoyed the fact that it was at home in its knot of friends and kin, living as they do, not separated from them. Were the others deliberately surrounding this one bird, aware of its vulnerability and attempting to shield it? Again, I can’t be sure, though I hope to witness it again and have the chance to watch their behaviour further. The most striking analogy that occurred to me as I wandered on down the lane was this: when Christ walked the earth he didn’t separate himself from people, live as a detached onlooker to observe our ways and say he’d witnessed our world close at hand. His approach was much better than that; while he was unique in his purity, he chose to live as one of us, integrating fully and yet maintaining his sinless record. Of course, his otherness made him a target too – he stood out, while not intending to, but this was inevitable, as it is with the white sparrow and his conspicuousness. I often talk to him as I go, and right now the Ukraine situation preoccupies me. And while I can’t wait for the suffering in Ukraine to end and pray daily that it will, I know we have a saviour who understands. He’s fully integrated, he’s ‘mighty to save’, and while we wait and pray for peace I believe he’s performing countless miracles and reaching out to those in that troubled place. I admit that I don’t have all the answers, but I believe we have one who stands out more brilliantly than a white sparrow amongst the brown, and we can take to him all our frustrations, worries and cares. The cross and the empty grave tell me so.
What did life in the Early Church look like, when Jesus’s legacy was fresh, and his physical presence, for some, a living memory? The Book of Acts has been our go-to source as Christians – and rightly so – but we are not discrediting the Bible when we explore issues it doesn’t mention. There are actions of the Early Church written widely of elsewhere, indisputable historical details that speak loudly to us today; the abandonment of babies and children is one such topic.
We have all heard sermons on how the believers ‘met together in one place and shared everything they had’ (Acts 2:42-47); extreme, we may think, and irrelevant now, and perhaps a little off-putting, so we don’t stay with these characters long. But we are missing out on much if our understanding stops here. (Besides, this approach to life is only noted for the believers in Jerusalem.) So, what else were the believers doing? And how would that look today?
Please read the Bible passage listed for each location before you read its story. While Bible characters and events do feature in what I write, it’s important to me that you see the given facts ahead of entering my imagined versions of these places. The stories have been researched to bring plausibility and genuine challenge to the reader. As with Gospel Voices, I hope what you read will take you deeper in your own study and enrich your understanding of God’s character.
Bible quotes throughout the stories are taken from the New Living Translation, unless otherwise stated.
Just as Gospel Voices brings fresh perspective and vibrancy to our reading of the Gospels, The Unfinished Story brings us right into the lives, the fresh faith, the challenges and sacrifices of the early Church in the days of the book of Acts.
I think this is a must-read for Christians in the 21st century church! We face different cultural and social standards, but new believers entering our churches (just like those in Joppa, Jerusalem, Macedonia & Ephesus) either come without previous Christian experience and background, or are often affected by other current religious or identity political issues.
There is much for us to learn from the early church in a now postChristian society. Caroline Greville is that rare thing, a skilled storyteller and dynamic teacher. She challenges us through these glimpses of the early church, to live more bravely, to trust more deeply and to rescue the poor, the outcasts and the hurting. These stories could, and should, be our stories, because Jesus is the same today as he was then and will be forever.
Caroline Greville opens up the world of early Christianity, 2000 years ago, through relatable characters that we come to care about, and she does it with a delicate touch.
–Bobbie Ann Cole, Christian writer, speaker and writing teacher
In this companion volume to Gospel Voices, Caroline Greville introduces us to a new cast of characters – all of whom are struggling to make sense of the world they live in. In The Unfinished Story we meet a good man who just isn’t very good at being a father as his children hit the teenage years, a woman struggling to come to terms with her husband’s infidelity, and the less than sexy reality of coping with illness in old age. There are urgent questions and no easy answers. But this mosaic of stories assures us of one thing: ‘We know how God feels about us – he’s shown it.’
-Prof. Carolyn Oulton, Subject Lead Creative and Professional
Sometimes a dog just won’t let you alone and will tap your leg with his paw, telling you to get up and take him out. We’ve had a run of drizzle-days where it’s just not inviting out there, and the household seems to be in a Twixmas stupor. A friend has told me this time is called ‘Romjul’ in Norway (‘mindful mooching’) and ‘Zwischen den Jahren in German’ (‘between the years’). Call it what you like, no one is motivated to go anywhere, except by Fergus the dog, and it’s my turn to obey.
To my shame the daylight is fading, and I lengthen my stride and modify my intended circuit as I take the lane from the roundabout and head off the beaten track. It turns out we’re in the ‘golden hour’, that time just before sunset (and sunrise) when the quality of light is most beautiful, and photographers get out there to take their most captivating shots. Apparently it’s sometimes called the ‘magic hour’ by them, as the light can be so bright and brilliant that it competes with the streetlights and the shine from house windows. Right now it’s more subdued, but all the better for it – everything is bathed in a soft, pink light: the bare tree trunks take on a warm hue, while the meadow we stop beside glows an invitation to all the rabbits and birds that are hiding from view, while we intruders come through. The old man’s beard and dead grasses look other-worldly and wonderful, their faded tones absorbing the new light. It’s like viewing the scene through a photographic filter lens, but you couldn’t capture the feeling it creates inside you, no matter how hard you tried – it’s a still evening, which is part of it. I could be in a church waiting in silence for the bride – a meaningful hush is here as beauty is both enjoyed and anticipated. Now a robin flies in front of us and lands in a branch close to me. Her outline is unmistakable, though she’s without colour as the light is fading fast. I greet her, before a rook startles her from above and sends her flying.
We think of winter as cold and stark – this scene is anything but.
I pause at intervals down the very muddy path to watch the sky, but Fergus pulls me on. I really should look where I’m going as I’m sliding every which-way, but it’s just too captivating! Sunsets contain my favourite colours in all of nature, and, like a photograph, words really cannot do them justice. It’s the way the colour seeps and intensifies, like newly applied wet watercolour – you’re not sure where the colours will blend next, and you cannot take your eyes off the page. I lean on the fence for a minute as the glow builds. It’s like watching fireworks… you wonder if this is the grand finale, yet it continues, as the colours burn through the sky. Though you merely spectate you feel a part of it, and it touches you deep inside.
I wander on in the gloaming now, for the sun has well and truly set and darkness is falling. If you are reading this and wondering when you might catch the sunset, on New Year’s Day 2022, it will happen at 15.58 in Dover, whereas in Durham it will be at 15.50, and St Andrews at 15.45, so there’s some variation, depending on your exact location. Unlike our view of the moon, which is pretty standard across a nation, the scene will of course be different depending on cloud and elevation. It’s interesting to think, too, that other creatures perceive sunsets differently to us. Reindeer, for example, can see ultraviolet light, giving them an even more striking sunset experience, it’s been suggested. And the reason why? To help them find lichen to eat. I can just picture reindeer out grazing with a dramatic sunset behind them, a card-worthy scene. That there’s a purpose to this reminds me we only know a fraction of what’s going on in the universe around us, and why.
Of course, the sun is setting on another year, and for some this feels a year to be rid of. The year ahead may look uncertain, whether on a personal or a national scale, but the sun will continue to set (unless the Lord returns), and we will find ourselves here again next year, looking back and wondering what the coming year will bring. No sunset is ever repeated, yet its brilliance remains the same; there is often a nervous apprehension as we approach a new year, wondering what it will hold, but the one who paints just a touch of his glory into the skies is the creator of our lives. He will hold our past, our present and our futures, if we let him.
Nature writers tend to be big on the Winter Solstice – follow many of them on Twitter today and you’ll find it to be so. This one isn’t. All the big names are championing the day – Robert Mcfarlane says it’s more important for him than Christmas and New Year, but if, like me, you are not intending to celebrate this festival, perhaps you’ll connect better with my own reflection.
December 21st then, the shortest day in the northern hemisphere and the beginning of winter, according to the astronomical calendar. We’re locked into winter now until March 20th or 21st, following this definition, which might sound bleak. Yet there’s a reassurance in the continuity, and not least in the barrenness of a cold December day. Trees take on a new beauty when bereft of their leaves – from the stark and distant silhouettes of bare trees against a sunlit horizon, to familiar trees in our streets and gardens which, free of their canopies, mean it’s easier to spot the birds and identify them. Trees in winter are like friends we get to see on their off days, dressed down and adornment free; we know them better, and there’s an acceptance and a growing love for them, as they are around no matter what.
Yet there is, being brutally honest with myself, less to appreciate in nature this month. Quite frankly there’s not much to see on many a daytime walk. Perhaps that’s why we’re back to night-walking again under skies spilled from bottled ink, the cold air intensifying the experience, apparently sharpening the brightness of the stars, the aliveness of it, the shock, the wonder of it all.
You might say it’s because the village is lit for Christmas that we’re drawn out. I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t true, but those beckoning lights do take our thoughts further, as of course they should. Christmas killjoys will point at our shining Christmas trees and ask, ‘What has that got to do with your message? You’ve stolen that idea from the pagans.’ Others would say we have repurposed rituals from the Winter Solstice, with our Christmas trees and bringing in of holly, ivy and mistletoe. Perhaps they are right. But from the Christian perspective even a belief system that rejects Jesus can be found revering what he has made, though worshipping the creation rather than letting it point back to the creator. And besides, evergreens symbolize endurance and eternal life, which is what we celebrate, after all.
Aside from the repurposing debate, there is actually good reason why Christians deck the trees and more. Sweep aside thoughts of Prince Albert’s introduction of German traditions to England, for it extends back much further than that. In fact, you can take your pick. One very old legend concerns St. Boniface; this is my favourite, and, I think, the most reliable. Tom Holland, in his Sunday Times bestseller Dominion, writes of Boniface that in 722 ‘he had been consecrated a bishop by the pope in Rome, and given a formal commission to convert the pagans east of the Rhine. Arriving in central Germany, he had headed for the furthermost limits of the Christian world. At Geisner, where Thuringia joined with the lands of the pagan Saxons, there stood a great oak, sacred to Thunor, a particularly mighty and fearsome god, whose hammer-blows could split mountains, and whose goat-drawn chariot made the whole earth shake.’ Holland tells us ‘Bonifice chopped it down. Then, with its timbers, he built a church.’ The legend goes, from other sources, that ‘a fir tree grew spontaneously in the oak’s place’ and many converted to Christianity; the following year ‘they hung decorations from the tree to celebrate what they now called Christmas rather than Winter Solstice.’ While these latter details aren’t found in Holland’s account, he does point to how mass conversion followed; the supposedly fearsome god Thunor didn’t obliterate Bonifice – “It’s just a tree, guys,” I imagine the people saying to each other. Holland states, ‘That he had not been struck by lightning, nor slain for his temerity by outraged locals, was widely noted. The bare stump of the oak served as proof of what the missionary had been claiming. Christ had triumped over Thunor. Pilgrims still travelled to Geisner; but now, when they did so, it was to worship in an oratory made from freshly sawn oaken planks.’
Another legend dates back to 1536, with Martin Luther strolling through a pine forest. It is said he glanced upwards and saw a multitude of stars between the branches, which left him awestruck. History Today writes, ‘This wondrous sight inspired him to set up a candle-lit fir tree in his house that Christmas to remind his children of the starry heavens from whence their Saviour came.’ This approach caught on, with ‘pyramids of wood’, ‘decorated…with evergreens and candles’ sometimes instead of trees.
Finally, in Scandinavia, St. Lucia’s Day is observed at the Winter Solstice. It celebrates the legend that St. Lucy would bring food to the persecuted Christians who were hiding in the Roman catacombs. It’s said she wore candles on her head so she could carry the food through the unlit tunnels.
We will probably never get to the bottom of these Christian legends, but the sustaining hope in a love that never sheds, withers or fails, will carry me through many a winter, both physical or metaphorical. If there are whispers of hope in what I see around me, I shall continue to take courage from them and to champion them, and I will not be put off just because someone else got there first. I’m reminded of a childhood squabble, when my brother came down to find my parents recording me sing nursery rhymes: ‘No, that’s my song! You can’t sing that!’ he spouted – he was outraged, but he had no more claim to that rhyme than me.
So let’s enjoy our Christmas traditions, find cheer in the lit trees, and perhaps ponder their origins. The skies still speak with lucidity as the stars shine in that untouchable canvas, causing us to wonder as generations have done at the brilliance behind them, and how once, a star shone far bigger and brighter than all the rest. I love, too, the boldness of Bonifice, and now I have learned of his actions, I will always remember him when we bring in our Christmas tree.
The world is pressing in again, and disappointments have come along in twenty-four hours; a postponed operation for my father, who was gowned and ready for theatre – no Christmas visit now, time to isolate – and a cancelled concert for Eliott that was to incorporate his uni audition, a solo guitar piece that he’s lived and breathed for weeks. Then news of Maddy’s friend stranded in uni accommodation as her flat-mate tests positive for Covid… no family Christmas for her. Unwelcome changes, and not just for us, as the nation begins to panic, and Covid restrictions impinge on yet another Christmas.
Yesterday a cold fog enveloped the village and we hunkered indoors; even the solace in roaming felt limited. The fog is still visible in the glow from the streetlamps, but I’ve settled again in the red chair beneath the window and have spent time with the one who holds us, and whom we take all these problems to.
While there are stirrings upstairs I enjoy the quiet a little longer. As I sit, a robin starts singing outside the window, as he has in recent days. In the dark, in the stillness, I can’t see him, yet he has my full attention – this is a well-rehearsed song, and perhaps I’m the only one to hear it, as he twills into the cold, dispiriting air, just metres from my head.
I’m reminded of Thomas Hardy’s ‘Darkling Thrush’ – a cousin of our hopeful robin. As the poem progresses, we read:
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
The difference, of course, between me and Hardy (putting aside his brilliance as a writer against my own efforts) is this: there is a ‘blessed Hope’ and I am not ‘unaware’. I have found God to be all-knowing and all-loving, and the robin’s song does remind me to look up and to be of good cheer.
Sometimes we need to take the lead, and there are enough voices of discouragement out there right now, while this lone robin’s simple song tells me to pull myself together. At this time of year, an early bird singing outside a window is likely to be a robin, and of course we can acquaint ourselves with this particular song. Like him, shouldn’t we be the first to proclaim our offer of hope? To reassure others that all is not lost? That a new day beckons, that it’s worth picking ourselves up and going on? While he may only be singing to re-establish a bond or to proclaim his territory, he is getting on with it, and just the brilliance of his song piercing through the night air, not waiting for dawn, not put off by low light, encourages me. I believe our creator God knew these moments would feel uplifting, and in his goodness he made us a world that we can delight in and enjoy, when personal or even national circumstances may depress us.
I’m wondering if there is, perhaps, a beauty in the distilling of nature, in the absence of so much of what we enjoy – the flowers, the sunshine, the multitude of summer birds and their song – in having to wait, like small children caught up in the anticipation of Christmas day? This robin’s song is all the more precious because these encounters feel rare at this point in the year. The robin, our national bird and ever hopeful songster, has become something of an emblem in December.
I’ll leave you with a fact about him to ponder, whether you spot him today on a Christmas card or a fence post, and it’s this: every individual robin bears ‘a unique breast pattern, which means they can be identified as individuals’; something like our fingerprints, I guess. How wildly creative is our God, to lavish such attentive detail on these little birds that to us look the same, for even experts struggle to tell male and female apart. For what purpose is the ‘bespokeness’ other than his sheer delight in creation? Or can robins identify each other in this way?
The robin is not simple at all but exquisite, and ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’.
How much more so are we. As his people, it’s vital that we continue to offer him praise and speak out our eternal hope, as Christmas starts to look a little different to how we planned it this year.
“Let your unfailing love surround us, LORD, for our hope is in you alone.’
 The Nation’s Favourite Bird: On 7th May 2015, the day of the general election, another vote was taking place, in which the robin received over 34% of votes. Over 200,000 voters gave their opinions here, and I myself was one of them! Interestingly, back on December 15th 1960, the robin was voted for as Britain’s National Bird, too.
Story taken from Gospel Voices, my collection centred around the life and teaching of Jesus
As I say in my Note to Reader at the start of Gospel Voices, I ask you to remember that while my inspiration comes from Scripture, my stories are speculative. It is my hope they will trigger personal research and cause you to formulate your own ideas on what these characters may have been like, and on the challenges they would have faced.This Midrashic approach allows our imaginations to enter Bible narratives, and our intellects, through thorough and responsible research.
Five days ago she was in Nazareth, bags and baskets packed for the journey, saying those lingering farewells. Her mother clung to her and asked one last time if it was really safe for her to travel. Joseph could do it alone, she’d reminded her; but no, he was faithful and kind and she wanted to be by his side. Dear Joseph. The way he looked at her and smiled – such commitment in his face, such depth of love. God really knew what he was doing in choosing him, though she wondered if she was up to the task herself. Why exactly had she ‘found favour’ with God, as the angel had said?
Five days! How much had changed since then. She dipped her fingers in the shallow dish of olive oil beside her and ran them over the baby’s smooth skin, massaged the oil into his dark strong hair, over his cheeks and his little nose with the gentlest of touches. Did he look like her? It was hard to tell so early on; she wondered if there would be any likeness at all. He certainly wouldn’t look like Joseph, but he had the purest, deepest love of all and would be the best earthly father she could imagine.
She picked up one of the baby’s small hands and felt it wrap around her finger. He held on with all of his little might. What a beautiful boy he was and how she loved him already! What an incredible gift! Her heart felt so full of love for him that she could even feel it beating; she felt more alive than ever before. What purpose he had given her, what hope! How wonderful God was, that he should have dreamt this up and thought of her.
She wiped the tears from her face that had started to fall onto the baby, and felt Joseph lay his big strong arm across her shoulders. He swept the remaining tear from her cheek. ‘It’s going to be alright, you know,’ he said. He paused and hummed while he filtered his thoughts. Then, ‘We’ve got this far,’ he continued, ‘and one fine day we’ll take him home, show the family. You need to get some rest now, you must be so tired.’
‘I could stay here forever, just us three,’ she said as she rubbed the oil over the baby’s legs and feet, her fingers lingering on his tiny toes. ‘I’m in no hurry to go back anyway – it won’t be easy, the gossip won’t stop.’ She paused. ‘Can you pass me those strips of cloth?’
‘One day at a time,’ said Joseph, handing them to her. ‘I…I wanted to provide you with some place better than this but we’ll find a proper room soon.’
‘I’m comfy here,’ she said. ‘And look how settled he is.’ They gazed at the baby, transfixed by him. She tenderly wrapped him in the swaddling bands then kissed him on the forehead. Joseph arranged some straw in the feeding trough next to where he was sitting, then rose, took him in his arms and placed him inside, very slowly though so as not to wake him.
It was getting quite dark now, but the moon was large and casting enough light for them.
There was the noise of a stampede outside and raucous shouts, the heavy feet of young men racing down the track.
‘I’ll go and see what’s happening,’ he said. But as he spoke, there was a gentle cough from outside.
‘Shalom!’ came a voice. ‘We’re looking for a baby.’
Joseph stepped over to the mouth of the cave and there stood an old wizened shepherd who, on catching sight of mother and child, stepped back and bowed his head. ‘We saw some angels out in the fields; they invited us down, us,’ he said, looking at his old woollen tunic and brushing off the debris from the field. A cluster of shepherd faces joined him in the entrance, their eyes wide and shining bright.
‘Come in,’ said Joseph. ‘All of you.’
‘He’s the Saviour of the world,’ said the old shepherd. ‘Ach, it’s the Lord, he’s here and the angels chose to tell us.’ He shook his head in wonderment and, in a moment of boldness, went right up to the manger and knelt before him. ‘Welcome, little king,’ he said, and shook his head again.
A young, vital shepherd put a hand on his shoulder and knelt down beside him, and the others followed.
‘Well, well, what a night indeed! I’m glad to see you’ve found our manger,’ said a tall shepherd with a long beard who stood up now and leant on his staff. He placed it against the wall and began rotating a twig in the centre of a limestone slab, at the entrance to the cave.
‘Your manger?’ said Mary. But was the Lord in this as well?
‘It’s where we birth them – in here,’ the shepherd replied. ‘Otherwise they’re out on the hillside, every day of the year.’
Soon the shepherd had a small fire going and brought over the oil lamps from the craggy shelves, before placing them back, one by one.
‘I did wonder how you found us so easily,’ said Joseph. ‘The angels—they didn’t give you directions then?’ said Joseph with a smile.
‘Ach, we knew where to come, alright,’ said the oldest shepherd, the wonder in his eyes now even more visible. ‘We’ve known for a very long time.’
There was a silence now – a holy silence, and it felt like no one should break it. It was a moment that would stay with Mary for eternity. These were certainly respectful men, she pondered. But they were more than that, it seemed. For they’d been called to witness the dear child’s arrival. Oh, what a moment was this! And what a God they served.
‘Those…those angels…so what did they say to you?’ asked Joseph, sitting down again and resting a hand on Mary’s shoulder.
‘It was just one who spoke, but soon there was a great crowd of them, singing their praises to God. I’m surprised you didn’t hear them from here.’ And the old shepherd told them what the angel had said and the hearts of all were warmed.
‘So…What’ve you done with your sheep?’ said Joseph and they laughed together.
‘Ach, they’ll cope without us for a short time,’ said the oldest shepherd at last. ‘You know, my sheep don’t roam far.’
‘We really shouldn’t stop long,’ said a nervous looking young shepherd, and he pulled on the leather belt around his waist. ‘If they end up blemished, they’re no good.’
‘Just this once, lad, just this once,’ replied a shepherd with a greying bushy beard. ‘Tonight is an exceptional night.’
‘So the Bethlehem sheep are special, I’ve heard,’ said Joseph, ‘very special.’
‘That’s right, young man. King David tended these sheep as a lad,’ said the old leader.
‘And I wrapped the most recent one,’ said the young shepherd, now appearing to gain confidence as he realized how warmly they’d been received. ‘I put him in that self-same manger. It’s our tradition,’ he said, with a proud smile.
‘Well, ours is a holy calling,’ said the tall shepherd. ‘We declare which will be Passover lambs at birth, then wrap them, like the boy said.’
‘And the only journey they’ll ever do is to Jerusalem to be sacrificed,’ continued the oldest shepherd, picking up the story. ‘Course, not all of them will be good enough. They have to be without blemish, no broken bones either. We walk them in on a Friday to be slain. Only when their last drop of blood is spilt will the temple priest declare, ‘It is finished.’
‘Grandfather, they don’t want to hear such detail, not on such a joyful night,’ said the youngest shepherd to the eldest.
‘Oh I think they do,’ the old man replied. ‘I think they understand.’
‘There’s bleating, it’s getting louder,’ said the young shepherd. ‘I think they’ve nearly caught up with us!’ ‘Come on lads, we’d better go. Pleased to meet you, little king.’ See Luke chapter 2, verses 1 – 20 for the narrative of Jesus’s birth NOTES:
Born in a cave?
There is an old tradition that Jesus was born in a cave. While we cannot be certain, some researchers think this was the Tower of the Flock, Migdal Edgar, the cave used by the temple shepherds in which the Passover lambs were birthed. Researchers like to cite Micah 4:8. There is the thought that Luke 2:7 states ‘in the manger’ (Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges and the Thayer Greek Dictionary). Commentators do raise the question of how the shepherds knew where to go otherwise, for the angels didn’t tell them, and they were not led by a star. I wonder how many mangers there would have been in Bethlehem.
Lambs around Bethlehem…in December?
Have you ever heard the argument, ‘lambs wouldn’t have been outside in December’? People say ‘Christmas is celebrated at the wrong time of year’. We’ll never know when exactly Jesus was born, but there is a little known detail that means our choice of December 25th isn’t so outlandish! The sacrificial temple lambs had to be one-year-old males, and living outside for 365 days. The fields around Bethlehem are known to be where they were raised. The temple needed lambs all year round, and so the hillsides would have been sheep-dotted regardless of the seasons.
Ellicott, writing about Luke 2:8, says ‘The statement in the Mishna that the sheep intended for sacrifice in the temple were pastured in the fields of Bethlehem, gives a special interest to the fact thus narrated, and may, perhaps, in part, explain the faith and devotion of the shepherds…’
See also the blog by Howard Hewitt, below. It is interesting to consider the parallels with Jesus’ own life; the sheep, born in Bethlehem, would be brought to Jerusalem on foot on a Friday, ready for slaughter:
14 March, 2014 Story of Bethlehem Sheep More Than Legend.
It was April of 1997. Mobile phones weren’t everyday items, cars were not so reliable, and we were a young couple, travelling from Spring Harvest (Minehead) to my husband’s father’s house in Devon. I wasn’t especially well – I had M.E., a chronic fatigue illness, and was looking forward to having a proper lie down. But just a few miles from our destination, our little red Metro ran into trouble. Lights flashed on the dashboard and the car lost power. Hazards on, we limped to the side of the road and stopped.
‘There’s no phone for miles around,’ we discussed. ‘What are we going to do?’
‘I could walk,’ said Rupert. ‘But I’d rather not leave you here alone.’
I’m sure I said a prayer – I can’t remember – but the next moment a minibus was pulling up behind us, and Rupert went over to talk to them.
‘What appears to be the matter?’ said the driver.
The explanation was given.
‘Hop in, the pair of you. There’s a garage with a phone not far away. We’re just going there.’
We were inclined to trust them. What else could we do? And anyway, what were the chances of that?
They opened the sliding door for us and in we climbed.
The garage soon appeared, we thanked the couple and phoned Rupert’s dad. The couple then returned us to our car, where we were collected by his step mum.
‘See you again soon,’ the kind man and his wife said to us when we parted.
Strange words, we decided later… We had never met them before, they knew we lived on the other side of the country, and we were unlikely to see them ever again. Angels in disguise? A part of me liked to wonder. Once we’d settled in with family I looked up their minibus company and its location in the then chunky Yellow Pages. They were not listed. No chance to follow up with a bunch of flowers or chocolates then, but I like to think they’ll be rewarded.
This week I shared my tale in one of my writing groups – our theme was ‘In Life, Stranger than Fiction’ so it seemed apt. A lady present then told me of a similar tale. She and her first husband had broken down decades ago, with their then two young girls. It was a dangerous road for a breakdown and darkness had fallen. She prayed and her husband went out for help. Soon after a chap came to their aid. He happened to have a spare car battery that he’d fit for them, and a flask of homemade soup was provided for all the family.
‘That reminds me of a similar experience,’ said another member of the group. She and her husband broke down just near Stonehenge, with no means of rescue. (Again, we’re in the decades of unreliable cars and no mobile phones). ‘A car pulled up to let their dog out and give him a drink,’ she said. ‘Our car needed water – they gave us the bottle and we topped it up. The radiator was sorted and off we went.’
In these days of bleak news stories, I wonder if you have some tale of rescue? Please do share.
For an uplifting (and Biblically sound) book of testimonies on heavenly intervention, read Angels by Hope Price. Modern day appearances of angels in both human and angelic form, angels in history, on the roads, in wartime and more!
Have you ever sat inside a tree? Maddy (our twelve-year-old in Badger Clan who is now grown-up and walks on her own regularly) told us the other day of ‘a tree that you can climb inside’. One September evening she takes Jemima and I with her, and Fergus, the energetic dog (Tyn has opted to stay behind). The sun is glowing a benevolent orange over the line of poplars marching across the high ridge that hems in one side of the village. By the time we’ve reached the right field via our scenic route it is getting dark, the way lit by the occasional dandelion and aided by the glow from the late-flowering oilseed rape, grown to be ploughed back into the soil.
‘Should we go on?’ I ask, but the girls are determined to reach the tree. ‘We won’t go any further than that,’ I say, pointing to where the trees encroach into the field, but we’ve arrived, for Fergus has stopped and is wagging his tail at the imposing oak.
Jemima needs no further invitation and has scrambled her way inside. ‘It’s like a hobbit hole,’ she says. Clichéd, perhaps, but there is no other way to describe it. The ancient oak boasts an arched front doorway, a larger rear exit and a naturally formed window.
‘Come inside,’ she tells me. ‘You know you want to.’
The tree is no less lovely inside and I touch the bark with my hands, the lintel over the door – aided to look this way or natural I wonder – and stare through the window and into the brambled scrub, ripe with blackberries. My log-perch in the centre is perfectly placed, presumably by a previous visitor, and I glance upwards to see how high the vaulted ‘ceiling’ is; it’s hard to tell as it’s so dark, and festooned with cobwebs that obscure the view. You couldn’t imagine a more child-friendly and welcoming tree, unless, of course, you are fearful of spiders. Being inside it takes me back to that safe, enclosed feeling we have in dens as children, whether impromptu camps under a tablecloth or creations with sticks and branches. I haven’t experienced it for years, but it’s very satisfying and snug.
The next day I’m back visiting it with our foster son, who dives inside on arrival, then proceeds to clamber up its height, fearless and free. His way of claiming a tree is climbing it, and he does it very well.
I’m left thinking about how readily we clamber inside these spaces as children, but have to glance over our shoulder as adults to check no one is looking, feeling we’re just doing it for the kids! I believe we should allow ourselves to do this more often, both physically and metaphorically.
The hollow oak makes me think of God’s protection; the psalmist says ‘Those who live in the shelter of the Most High will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty.’ (Psalm 91). There are mentions of him ‘concealing’ us ‘In the secret place of His tent’ (Psalm 27:5) and ‘In the shadow of His hand’ (Isaiah 49:2). Our lives are said to be ‘hidden with him’ (Colossians 3:3). This feeling of enclosure is natural for us to seek, our experience from our first conscious thoughts in the womb (said to be between 24 and 28 weeks), and perhaps why we want that cocooned feeling when we are small. We should naturally feel protected as children; in an ideal world anyway, and I suspect it should point us to our supernatural protection as believers, whatever age we happen to be.
While we enjoy the novelty of this tree, for some creatures it provides genuine shelter; it is a likely nesting site for birds and bats, no doubt for a fox or badger talking a break from a downpour, and perhaps a hibernating hedgehog, according to The Woodland Trust. It is far from unique too, and an oak in Cheshire (thought to be the largest tree in all of England in 1880) once ‘served as a bullpen, a pigsty and a Wendy house’, while a yew tree in North Wales contains steps up to a podium, thought to be a location from which John Wesley once preached.
It has (you might have noticed) sent me down a rabbit hole of research, and I now know its 222 inch girth suggests a tree of approximately 360 years. That tree could have begun life as a sapling in 1661. Should nature make us feel small sometimes, and cause us to stop and wonder? For my part, I think it should.