Turning Darkness Into Light: Unutterable and Unearthly

We were familiar with the night.
We knew its favourite colours,
its sullen silence
and its small, disturbing sounds,
its unprovoked rages,
its savage dreams.

We slept by turns,
attentive to the flock.
We said little.
Night after night, there was little to say.
But sometimes one of us,
skilled in that way,
would pipe a tune of how things were for us.

They say that once, almost before time,
the stars with shining voices
serenaded
the new born world.
The night could not contain their boundless praise.

We thought that just a poem —
until the night
a song of solar glory,
unutterable, unearthly,
eclipsed the luminaries of the night,
as though the world were exorcised of dark
and, coming to itself, began again.

Later we returned to the flock.
The night was ominously black.
The stars were silent as the sheep.
Nights pass, year on year.
We clutch our meagre cloaks against the cold.
Our aging piper’s fumbling fingers play,
night after night,
an earthly echo of the song that banished dark.
It has stayed with us.

~Richard Bauckham “Song of the Shepherds”

There is no specific “song of the shepherds” recorded in scripture.  They were unlikely people to be inspired to use flowery words and memorable turns of phrase.   Scripture says simply they looked at each other and agreed to get to Bethlehem as fast as possible and see for themselves what they had been told by God.   There was no time to waste singing out praises and thanksgiving;  they “went with haste.”

Witnessing an appearance of the heavenly host followed by seeing for themselves the incarnation of the living God in a manger must have been overwhelming to those who otherwise spent much time alone and in silence.  They must have been simply bubbling over with everything they had heard and been shown.  At least scripture does tell us the effect the shepherds’ witnessing words had on others: “and all who heard it wondered…”

I don’t think people wondered if the shepherds were embroidering the story, or had a group hallucination, or were flat out fabricating for reasons of their own.  I suspect Mary and Joseph and the townspeople who heard what the shepherds had to say were flabbergasted at the passion and excitement being shared about what had just taken place.  Seeing became believing and all could see how completely the shepherds believed by how enthusiastically they shared everything they knew.

We know what the shepherds had to say, minimalist conversationalists that they are.   So we too should respond with wonder at what they have told us all.

And believe.

We stood on the hills, Lady,
Our day’s work done,
Watching the frosted meadows
That winter had won.

The evening was calm, Lady,
The air so still,
Silence more lovely than music
Folded the hill.

There was a star, Lady,
Shone in the night,
Larger than Venus it was
And bright, so bright.

Oh, a voice from the sky, Lady,
It seemed to us then
Telling of God being born
In the world of men.

And so we have come, Lady,
Our day’s work done,
Our love, our hopes, ourselves,
We give to your son.
~Bob Chillcott “The Shepherd’s Carol”

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