the same country shepherds
- The Rev. Craig Townsend
Luke 2:8-14 (KJV)
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying 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, good will toward men.
The Trinidadian guys, the Ivoirians, the Ghanaians stand out in the cold and sharp wind all day, abiding on the streets of New York City next to their display tables of cell phone cases and socks, cheap gloves and charger chords. Their hands deep in their pockets, their heads wrapped in a scarf under a hat, under a hood, their backs are tense with the cold. They stomp their feet. Maybe they are thinking about their siblings back home or about their father who died in the war that tore their country apart and forced their flight. Who knows? What do I know? It looks like a hard job but they seem happy. They are kind. Maybe they go home to at night to a warm room. Maybe a woman awaits them with a dinner of coconut rice and fish with ginger and mango, or sweet milk-rice soup. Maybe they go home to laughter and beauty, some beer and grace. I hope so. Maybe later when they can’t sleep they go out walking the streets for some air or for privacy, still cold—always cold— and one night out on the streets of Newark or Harlem missing their family thinking about home when the angel of the Lord descends upon them, and the glory of God shines around them, and then a multitude singing Glory to God descends, and on earth peace!
We don’t know. It could happen! We really don’t know who the shepherds are among us.
By 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the sun has gone behind the buildings making the rooms shadowy, but darkness has actually filled these rooms for many days. I’ll walk the dog and later take the kids ice-skating. I’m not in a place yet to clean the apartment. I still don’t really want to talk much, I regret the effort required to shape words. The apparent ease you have in walking through the door, turning on a light, and checking your phone makes me loathe myself all the more. But I believe the darkness ends; that light will come. I hang on to that thought as I tape the cracks on our apartment’s broken windowpanes; slice a pear for dinner; and when the children take my hands as we walk up Madison Avenue---as I accomplish through the weight that is depression. This is my Bethlehem. We all arrive someday, in one way or another, for some length of time, I believe. Maybe we arrive pregnant and riding on a donkey, or maybe on an airplane from Africa fleeing war, or maybe it is within. It’s dark and dangerous, full of poverty, oppression, suffering and death. There is no safe haven; you live with rejection. The pain is great! But one day, like a miracle, the light does come. And how wonderful to me—how beautiful—the day I wake from the darkness, and upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation.
The ice is smooth and the sky is dark at the Donald Trump Skating Rink, just inside Central Park’s southeast border. There are great lights above the rink. Skyscrapers rise up all around us. I look up at them while the children skate. Inside the buildings are apartments worth many millions of dollars. Are they homes, I wonder? Who lives in those rooms, looking down at our abiding shepherds? One building has a crane on it that is building higher and higher floors that will rival the tallest structures in the world. The hundreds of lighted windows are beautiful yet daunting. Beautiful buildings, proud and vain, shadowed by their own arrogance and exclusivity.
I watch the children skating. They come around the circle toward me, tentative, leaning forward, hands reaching out to steady. They’ve just started to skate. They’re not very good on the ice yet, but they think they’re great. This kills me. They see me and light up, lift one hand to carefully wave and they smile. Mummy look! I nod and wave as my heart breaks for them for the millionth time today. I love you so much. I think to myself, and how I fail you every day—still smiling, still waving to them, my heart sinks further.
When I turn slightly to watch the children’s wobbly progress past me, three ducks rise out of the marsh grass on the other side of the rink. Immediately I feel their wildness, their wilderness, raw and gorgeous against the backdrop of the soaring skyscrapers. They ascend across the rink and shoot over me. No one seems to notice. And with a gasp (was that my own breath?) I watch as another group of two or maybe three ducks rise out of the small marsh. I sense the heat of their bellies as they rush above me. Like spears the color of night rising against the trees and buildings and big rink lights, and barely there yet discernable. I turn to the teenagers next to me but they are caught up in their banter and each other when a third group of ducks rises up with a force of a beauty and breathlessness and light. Did you see that? Did you see that just now? Who are these heavenly creatures? Did you feel those heartbeats come out of the darkness? Did you wake from your despair to wonder how something so powerful can take away your pain just like that—so powerful, and yet so peaceful all at once?
- Emilie Øyen