“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” (Luke 2.8)
We all know what happened next; the angels, the light, the singing, the little child in the manger. But the shepherds have no idea that everything will change on this night, and even less idea that they will be the first to bear witness to that change. As far as they know, this night will be no different from any other they have sat through on this lonely hillside, and the next night will be no better, and it will go on and on, in just the same way for the whole of their lives.
We don’t know much about them, but it’s reasonable to assume that they didn’t have many reasons to be hopeful. They’re living in an occupied country, at the mercy of the brutal Roman Empire. There’s no real possibility of doing anything about that either. Rome suppresses dissent ruthlessly. They occupy one of the lowest positions in their society too, and people were often suspicious of them because of their semi-nomadic lifestyle. They couldn’t easily keep the ritual requirements of their faith, and they were sometimes accused of grazing their sheep on other people’s lands. And to add to all that it’s dreary, cold and dark; there are no streetlights to beat back the pitch blackness of the night. It’s just another in an endless round of dreary cold and dark nights. It is easy for us to say “Ah, but any minute now the angels will show up”, but they don’t know that.
It’s the same for all of us when we are feeling hopeless. It may be that a whole new life is just around the corner, but we can’t see round the corner. People telling us blithely that it will get better one day doesn’t help at all. I recall a woman I knew who was stuck in the darkness of depression once telling me that if one more person told her there was a light at the end of the tunnel, she would probably thump them. What use was that, she said, when she couldn’t get to the end of the tunnel? What she needed was someone to come and sit in the tunnel with her, someone who was at home there and unafraid of its darkness. There’s no one who fits that bill better than God, to whom “darkness and light are both alike”.(Psalm 139.12)
Whether they realise it or not, God is with those shepherds, in the darkness, long before the shining band of angels shows up. How else does he know where to send the heavenly host? And the same is true for us. God is with us in the night, perfectly at home there, however long it lasts and however hopeless it feels.
As one of my favourite Advent hymns*, puts it:
But the slow watches of the night
not less to God belong
and for the everlasting right
the silent stars are strong.
You can read the whole hymn here.
(Thy Kingdom come on bended knee the passing ages pray.
Frederick Lucian Hosmer 1840-1929)(Sung to the tune: Irish. It has a lovely lilt.)