There are many characters in the story of the Nativity but one that we rarely hear of is the Fourth Shepherd.
When the angels came that night to bring the Good News, they began with the most unlikely. Shepherds were a tough lot, weathered and self-reliant, who had to survive out on the hills protecting their flock from the weather, the wolves and their own stupidity.
Once the shepherds had gotten over the shock and wonder of the glory of heaven shining all around them, they immediately wanted to go and find the baby; the lights of Bethlehem beckoned as brightly as the stars – ‘Come and see’. The could barely stop to wrap their cloaks around them. They took hold of their staffs and each caught a light from the fire.
All except one. One young shepherd remained seated, looking into the fire. When the others asked him why he wasn’t ready, he replied that he was; he was ready to stay behind and take care of the flock. The other shepherds shook their heads with disbelief but they were too excited to argue and shouted over their shoulders that they would be back as soon as they had seen the Christ Child.
The Fourth Shepherd took his staff and moved to the crest of a hill where he could see clearly across the fields to Bethlehem; he imagined that he could see the very place where the angels had sung of; he imagined the smells of the animals and the hay and the delight of a mother and father as they held their new born baby boy. His imagining didn’t last long, however, as the sheep gathered round him bleating and huffing for attention. Reminded of his responsibilities, he turned his gaze to the shadows and the horizon.
The shepherds didn’t come back the next day, or the next. In fact, they never came back. The importance of their message had taken them to many far off places. So the Fourth Shepherd took charge of the flock for that year, the next year and for many, many years until he was an old, old man. People talked about him and how he wasn’t like the other shepherds they knew. He took care of them by himself; he birthed them and healed them. He was a thoughtful man who treated his flock like his own children, knowing each of their names – from the grandmothers to the lambs.
One winter’s evening, the Fourth Shepherd was walking along a hillside path, one of the lambs wrapped in his cloak, when a man walked towards him and stopped to ask about the bundle he held. The Fourth Shepherd told him that he had searched all day for this lamb only to find him caught up in some brambles and close to death. ‘He’s warmed up enough now,’ he said and swung the lamb onto his shoulders.
‘Not much of a flock’, the man smiled.
‘O, there are more troublemakers,’ the Shepherd returned the smile. ‘They number about a hundred. I’ve left them in safe pasture so that I could chase after this little one. I’ve never lost a sheep in all my years and I’m not going to lose one now. Now it’s getting dark; time to get back.
And you, friend; you’re a long way out yourself? If you’d like a warm fire to sleep by, I’d be glad of the company. And I could tell you a tale of another winter’s night full of stars like this one.’
The man nodded and turned to walk with him. ‘I was born on a night like this,’ he said, ‘and there were shepherds that night too. Perhaps there is more than one story worth telling.’