“And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.”
There is magic here when you first come to the desert on a silent night. In the beginning life feels as limitless as the sky. I laid back and looked up at these stars and Orion danced across the sky until the bear came bounding along to chase him across the midnight canvas. I had hope then and nothing seemed impossible. Those long night hours flew away in fantasies of heroism, certain riches, and a woman to make it all worth-while. Glory, gold, and a girl. Night watches fly when you’ve got dreams to ride.
These sheep under my eyes should multiply by the hundreds. I could lead a revolt and throw off our oppressors, become a leader of men. Or I might save the sheep from disaster and catch the eye of my master and through him the hand of his daughter. Out here in my head my biceps were bigger, my courage stronger, and my intelligence a little greater than everyone else. One day I would catch my break and be a King. I hung onto those dreams for years.
Turns out it isn’t the shifting shadows, the weight of deep black, or the bumps in the night that terrorize the experienced. After a while you aren’t scared of anything anymore that might be there just out of sight. A grown man’s terror is that after a couple decades Orion stops dancing when you look up there. Big bear sits still in his place, no longer willing to move at the whim of your imagination. You realize that glory isn’t given to those who keep a couple dozen animals, that you aren’t big enough or tough enough to conquer an empire, and chicks don’t dig guys who stink like sheep.
Worse than hopelessness is the knowledge that life used to be so hopeful. The certainty of my teenaged promise doubles the pain of this middle-aged defeat. I could have been a hero. I might have made it big in the shepherd business. I should have been a good husband and a great dad, with a big house and horses to run. If only I had become that legend who had kept me company all those gloomy nights.
Instead I’m out here at dusk, too tired to make Orion dance, with twenty-three sheep and zero dreams. Would the world change for me if I looked up in time to glimpse Orion leap, or the bear’s nose lift to sniff in his direction? What good would it do if some tiny spark of future hope flickered over those far hills? Has hope ever held value year over year? And what could happen out here in this silence that made life matter at all?
“And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy, that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.”
C.S. Lewis answering the question- which of the world’s religions is most likely to give it’s followers the greatest happiness:
Which of the religions of the world gives to its followers the greatest happiness? While it lasts, the religion of worshipping oneself is the best.
I have an elderly acquaintance of about eighty, who has lived a life of unbroken selfishness and self-admiration from the earliest years, and is, more or less, I regret to say, one of the happiest men I know. From the moral point of view it is very difficult! I am not approaching the question from that angle. As you perhaps know, I haven’t always been a Christian. I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity. I am certain there must be a patent American article on the market which will suit you far better, but I can’t give any advice on it. (God in the Dock p.58)
Perhaps our problem is that we often consider happiness and comfort to be synonymous. On this way of thinking, my pursuit of happiness boils down to something like, ‘do what feels good.’ This is how you trip over your own happiness and stumble into an existential hangover.
What if, as Lewis recommended elsewhere, we look beyond what lies ‘under the sun’?
“We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at sea. We are far too easily pleased.” (Weight of Glory)
The first quotation shows that our view of what constitutes happiness can be shallow and banal. The second reminds us that our pleasures are echoes of a greater reality spoken of by the Apostle:
“For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:17-18 ESV)
Far too easily pleased indeed.
I need fiction. I’m an addict. This is not a figure of speech. I don’t quite read a novel a day, but I certainly read some of a novel every day, and usually some of several. There is always a heap of opened paperbacks face down near the bed, always something current on the kitchen table to reach for over coffee when I wake up. Colonies of prose have formed in the bathroom and in the dimness of the upstairs landing, so that I don’t go without text even in the leftover spaces of the house where I spend least time. When I’m tired and therefore indecisive, last thing at night, it can take half an hour to choose the book I am going to have with me while I brush my teeth. It always matters which book I pick up. I can be happy with an essay or a history if it interlaces like a narrative, if its author uses fact or impression to make a story-like sense, but fiction is king, fiction is the true stuff, compared to which non-fiction is a shadow, sometimes appealing for its shadiness and halfway status; only the endless multiplicity of fiction is a problem, in a life where reading time is still limited no matter how many commitments of work or friendship I am willing to ditch in favour of the pages.”
—Francis Spufford, The Child That Books Built, HT Alan Jacobs
“Now before the feast of the Passover when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
You never said what I should be doing right now. You didn’t tell me whether I should stand and watch or stay away. I look up to you and at eye level I see the blood dripping off your toes. I don’t have the guts to keep looking at your suffering but when I shift my gaze I see my own dirty feet. My toes were clean a few hours ago, you washed them for me. Somehow it didn’t cross any of our minds in the moment to wash yours for you. You went to the garden with filthy feet and stood before Pilate on filthy feet. You walked on filthy feet to this place and now, bloody and exposed before the world, all I see is your feet and mine.
I don’t understand anything right now. You washed my feet, fed me and invited me to pray. Why did I spend those last few hours falling asleep? I can blame the drowsiness on all the food and the wine, but I feel terrible about it now. You did everything for me and my response was to wake up from an ill- advised nap and run away. I call myself “the one who Jesus loves” but my feet wouldn’t follow you when you most wanted a friend.
Why did you wash our feet? You knew what Judas was scheming and you knew Peter better than he knew himself. You must have known that when my feet got still in the garden that my head would begin to nod. You knew that when they came for you there my feet and my fear would carry me away. You knew then that when my feet finally found the courage to come back and stand at the foot of this cross they would already stink again.
We both have filthy feet and I don’t understand. Was there purpose in the washing? Or is the lesson in the dirt? What is the message you have for me? Should I look at the new dirt on my feet or at the blood and grime on yours? Why did you ever bother to wash me when you knew what a mess I would make of your work so quickly after you were done?
You told us you were here to redeem us, you came to seek and to save. You said they would take and kill you. We couldn’t tell until this Passover evening how those three were connected. We didn’t see that what, and how and when were linked so closely that redemption counted on it. I see it now in the blood dripping off your toes and mixing in the mud around mine. I see my redemption in this death on Passover, but I still can’t see why. If my feet didn’t even deserve the water you washed them in, why God, would you buy them with your blood?
You have put your terrible plan into action. This is what you meant to do all along. But I’m stuck right now. I don’t know whether I should step closer to you or to back away from the horrifying thought that you came up with this as the best way to save the world. My feet don’t have the courage to do either. My feet are scared to run away from you, you’ve always had the words of life, and my feet scared to run to you, your words brought you to this death. I’m stuck here in my tracks. I wish I could go back to the room and ask you so many questions, and I wish I had thought to wash your feet.