It was the early hours of the morning when the shouting began. I had already rolled over once, trying to settle my aching body for another few hours of sleep before daylight. The quiet and stillness of the inn was a blessed thing after what the day had brought. Until that stillness was broken by the noises outside. Noises that would soon be waking my guests and making them complain.
The floor was cold under my feet as I threw on my robe. I jerked the cord around my waist and fumbled in the dark for my sandals. Where had I dropped them last night? Oh yes, by the door. I pushed my feet in and tied a hasty knot in the laces, then scurried out the door.
The noises had started near the back of the inn, but by the time I got to the gate, the revelers had moved around to the front. I threw open the gate and stepped outside, closing it again behind me to prevent them from disturbing my property. They were drunks, most likely, but they could take their partying elsewhere.
“Men!” I called, as the stench of their robes informed me they were shepherds. Great. Why did they have to choose this night of all nights to come into Bethlehem? Couldn’t they have stayed with their flocks until the census was over?
One of them caught sight of me and in the next minute they had surrounded me, laughing and shouting. They were excited – no, they were jubilant, ecstatic, as happy as any men I’d ever seen. One was shouting in my face, but his breath reeked of garlic, not drink.
“There’s a baby—“
“—in the manger!”
“Angels told us!”
“He’s the savior!”
“Swaddling clothes, they said!”
“Silence!” I thundered, and it fell, sudden and awkward. We stood in the street, looking at each other. They kept grinning and jostling each other.
“One of you tell me what’s going on here,” I said, lowering my voice. “And then I’ll ask you to move on, as you’re disturbing my guests. You.” I pointed to the man who smelled of garlic.
“The angels told us to come. They said we’d find the baby here, in the stable, wrapped in swaddling clothes. They said he was the savior we’ve all been waiting for – the promised Messiah. And it’s true. He’s right there, in the manger. Just a baby, but he’s going to save us.”
Maybe he had just eaten the garlic to cover the smell of the drink, for his words certainly didn’t sound like those of a sober man. I turned to the man next to him. “What angels?” Best to get them to start at the beginning of their story and give all the facts.
“The ones that sang in the sky,” he answered, gesturing up with his hands, and their grins got wider as they all began nodding. “We were just watching our flocks, you know, waiting for the lambs to come. I was about to nod off to sleep when all of a sudden there was this light all around us and angels up in the sky.”
“They were singing!” the first man broke in again, and then they all started singing together, a song that they’d obviously sung a few times already. It did remind me of the noises I’d first heard from my bedroom.
“Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth!”
I waved my hands to get them to stop. They’d be waking my guests again with that howling. It certainly didn’t sound like an angel’s song to me. “Thanks. So they sang. Now what are you doing here?”
“Oh, they told us to come.” Another man spoke with the simplicity of a child. Just wandering around doing whatever angels told him to. “They said we’d find the baby here and we did.”
“Where?” I asked, somehow hoping I’d heard them wrong. Not in my stable…
“Up there, in the stable.” The man gestured.
So much for my hopes. I could see a lantern still burning in the window of the stable. The man and woman were up there, the ones who had arrived late last night with their pitiful story about finding no room in any inn. Of course not – we were all full with this census going on. And I wouldn’t have had any pity for them, except that the woman was huge with child. It wasn’t my fault that there were so many travelers here for the census or that they’d arrived in town so late they couldn’t find a room. But that woman looked the way my wife did just before our son was born, and I couldn’t leave her outside. So I told them they could have the stable. It was all I had left. And now this.
“Go see for yourself,” the man urged me. “The baby is there, just like the angels said. He’s the Messiah we’ve been promised. The One God is sending us. We’re spreading the news. To think that we were alive to see this moment!” He pounded his hand on my back, his garlic breath nearly overwhelming me.
“Yes, thanks,” I said, stepping back. “All right then, go on, but please, don’t shout. My guests are trying to sleep.”
“They should be worshipping the Messiah!” the man called, and with that, they went down the street. Not walking, mind you, but jumping, dancing, frolicking. Kicking up their heels like the lambs that they were watching. At least they waited to get around the corner to start shouting again, though I could still hear their faint “hallelujahs!” and shouts that “the Messiah has come!”
I shook my head and turned toward the stable. The lantern glowed faintly there. I hated to disturb the couple, but if there were going to be more visitors like this to my stable, then they had to move elsewhere.
All was still at the stable when I got there and stepped inside. The animals were sleeping or chewing their cud and barely paid me any attention. In the biggest stall, where I’d spread fresh, clean hay for the man and the woman, the lantern’s glow shed a soft light over them. The woman was rocking a baby and singing softly; beside her sat one of my mangers, with a small blanket covering the straw inside. The man was resting on the hay nearby, his eyes on the woman and a gentle smile parting his beard.
“Um, excuse me,” I murmured, suddenly hesitant to disturb them.
The man scrambled to his feet. “Is anything wrong?”
“Oh, uh, no. I just stepped up to check on how you were doing and, well, if you needed anything.”
“No, we are quite comfortable, thank you. Our son arrived a few hours ago.” He cast a beaming smile over his shoulder at the small baby. The woman raised her head to look at me.
“Would you like to see him?” she asked, her voice soft as she lifted the baby slightly and drew the blanket back from his face. I stammered a yes and stepped closer, leaning down. What would a Messiah look like?
The baby was sleeping, one tiny fist pressed against his cheek, yet there seemed to be a soft glow about his face. Just the lantern light, probably, and yet something held my gaze on that babe’s face. He was as tiny as my son when he was born, but there was something different about this baby. Something that made it seem like it was a good thing he was here and the shepherds had a reason to be dancing about the town shouting out the good news.
I drew back and shook myself, glancing at the man. “There were, uh, some visitors here a short while ago.”
“Yes.” The man was smiling. “The angels told the shepherds of Jesus’ birth.” There was wonder on his face and on the woman’s. Then a frown creased his face. “Was there a problem? I heard them shouting a bit as they left.”
“It’s okay.” I waved my hand. “They’ve moved on.”
I looked at the woman again and saw the exhaustion that lined her face. I remembered my wife’s travail when her time had come. This woman needed rest, not visitors. “Let me know if there is anything else you need. And I’ll try to make sure there are no more disturbances tonight.”
The woman ducked her head and the man murmured their thanks. I glanced at the babe one last time, still sleeping in her arms, and then I backed out of the stable. As I walked down the narrow trail from the stable to the inn, I could hear the shepherds shouting their good news somewhere on the other side of town. A star high above seemed to be shining brighter than usual, lighting the path for me. It was a good night.