The lantern wound its way up the hill, three figures hunched around its meagre light. One of the shepherds held something swaddled tight in his fleece jacket, along with the warm stones they’d brought from around their campfire. They were good to stop your hands freezing in the dead of night.
The dark seemed deeper than usual, despite the star being bright, the skies now bereft of the chorus they’d just seen. Was it only an hour since? And the reverberations of that great light echoing out still on their retinae, as it might do always. No-one witnesses something that holy without scarring.
The little lamb might make it, might not. The shepherd rubbed its cold body as they hurried onwards, fearful of being too late. It was the nearest a man could get to being a mother, holding that small body that might live or die in his coat. Willing it to warm up and breathe. Carrying the possibility of life or death and the not-knowing.
The streams of silver light touched the roof of the small house, and they looked at one another before knocking on the door. As it opened, they recognised the same golden glow that had shone out of heaven onto their unspectacular fields, light catching like wool on the thorn bushes. Every ordinary thing was aflame with the sacred tonight. And then they saw him.
The dried blood on the newborn didn’t faze them, they were used to such things. Nor did his raucous cries, full of life, nor the loving gaze of his parents as they carefully washed him and wrapped him in warmth. What held them dumbstruck was the light, the presence in the room of something so softly alive and full of grace that they unconsciously held their breath in awe.
They fell to their knees, all three, setting the lantern down carefully away from the straw. Eventually something more was needed, but they felt words would be inadequate somehow, so just kept their heads bent when they could tear their eyes away from him, this new, tiny King of All. And then there was a strange bleating sound.
The little lamb wrestled and kicked from within its confines and the shepherd had no choice but to let it go free in the small room. They watched amazed as the small creature, so perfect and new, bounded amongst Joseph and his family, making everyone laugh, nudging the two oxen and the ass stood calmly by their mangers.
A dark possibility arrested the shepherd’s thoughts. That they might mistake the lamb for a sacrificial gift. Seeing it now, dancing in the glow of love, the baby gurgling quietly, he had to speak.
“Please, don’t kill it,” he blurted.
The holy mother smiled.
“Every lamb of God is welcome here and safe,” said Joseph.
The lantern wound its way back down the hillside a little later, swinging carefree. Three figures walked beside it, free of burdens, a lightness in their steps and a new joy blazing in their hearts.