The Path to Bethlehem
A short story from
Encounters with the Christ
“I was sitting on this stone looking down on Bethlehem,” the old man said, his white hair and beard flowing in the soft breeze, “when I saw the angel.” He looked up in the summer sky, his eyes sparkling with memory. Both hands rose from his side, palms up, into the air before him.
“He looked as big as this hill. It looked like he was standing on Bethlehem. But he was between the village and me. And when he spoke my whole body heard his words, not just my ears.”
I looked at my companion, momentarily lost in his memory, reliving a long ago night. Once again he heard the words of the angel. His body trembled slightly. I asked him if he had been afraid.
“Afraid,” he exclaimed. “Yes,” he said, and then quickly added “no.”
“I might have been afraid, startled at first, for a moment. I was as afraid as anyone who found himself standing in the very presence of the Lord. The angel wasn’t the Lord. He was the Lord’s messenger. He told to us to not be afraid, so I wasn’t.”
“The others were down the mountain, there, at that level place.” We had just walked up the mountain. I had heard many stories about that night. I wanted to know if the stories were true and finding opportunity to investigate I came to Bethlehem. This shepherd told me what he witnessed that night.
“The angel told us the promised Messiah had been born in Bethlehem.” He talked while we descended the mountain. “We would find him lying in a feeding trough. Suddenly, there were many more angels with the first. They filled the sky. They outshone the stars and hid the moon with their brilliance. They sang ‘Glory to God’ while standing in the Lord’s presence. They sang ‘peace on earth’ while standing in mine.”
“I was only a boy. A shepherd. We lived in the hills with our sheep. Not in the village. Many people avoided us. Only lepers are lower than shepherds. But, angels sang to me.”
“Look over there, in the distance. That is Herod’s Keep.” My companion pointed to a hill toward the east of Bethlehem. “They say you can see Jerusalem from that tower.” I looked at the structure, fortified and imposing. It stood between the sunrise and Bethlehem and would cast a long shadow on the town each morning.
“I would often go down to Bethlehem to see Jesus. He would toddle to me with a huge smile on his face. Then he would look at me, right in the eyes, and touch me. He was barely walking when my own little brother was born.” He stopped talking and stared at the fortification on the distant hill. “He was a beautiful, lively little boy when the soldiers came. Herod was mad.” He stood silently for a long moment before continuing. “I thought they had killed Jesus, too. They killed all the little boys.”
He took my hand and I helped him down the hill a short distance. We stopped at the level place he had pointed to moments ago.
“We were here. My father, my brothers. When I got to them they were staring into the sky. I didn’t have to ask if they saw the angels or heard them singing. They had. I could see it in their faces. It was night but their faces shown with great light.”
“I said to them, ‘I’m going to Bethlehem’ and started down the hill. We all came leaving the sheep here. My father said the angels would watch them. I believed it.”
He led me along the path they had taken to Bethlehem long ago. It led down one hill and then up to the village, the birthplace of David a shepherd anointed king. The way led through a deep ravine.
“For thirty years I thought he had been killed by the soldiers,” the old shepherd continued. “The shadow of death lay heavy on Israel. Roman soldiers were everywhere. By the time I married I no longer thought of the murdered children. I had driven the memories from my mind but not my heart. My resentment toward the oppressors grew daily.”
“Then one day a great teacher passed by on his way to Jerusalem. My wife led me to see him. I was angry. I had been angry for years. My anger was bitter in my stomach. My wife thought I would be less angry if I could only hear this teacher.”
“‘Let us go listen to him,’ she said. ‘He heals people of their sickness,’ she said. I was sick with anger, so I went with her.”
“We found him outside of Bethany. He stayed there often. There was such a great crowd of people. I had never seen so many. But then I have never been very far from here. Only to Jerusalem where there were always many more people. I hated crowds. Give me sheep – not people.”
“I listened to him from across a great space. Everyone heard his words no matter how many or how far away. He told stories about God’s kingdom. His words were – wise. They struck me to my heart.”
“When he got up to walk he did not stop teaching. As he passed us he was talking about King David and being a shepherd. Then he stopped right in front of me.”
“‘Who among you who has a hundred sheep,’ he said, ‘will he not, if he loses one, leave the ninety-nine on the hill?’ And he took my hand and gazed into my eyes. He knew I was a shepherd. ‘I must smell of sheep,’ I thought.”
“‘And he will go and find the one sheep who is lost,’ he continued. ‘And return with that sheep on his shoulders, rejoicing that he had found his lost sheep.’ ‘I have done that,’ I thought, as I looked back into his eyes. ‘I have found lost sheep and been relieved.’”
“‘So, your heavenly Father and all His angels rejoice when one lost sinner is found.’” With those words he smiled at me, touched my wife on the shoulder and moved on.
“‘It is he,’ I said to my wife, as years of anger and bitterness dissolved. ‘He is the baby I saw 30 years ago, the little boy born in Bethlehem. He is the one whose birth was announced by the choir of the Lord. He is alive.’”
“From then on, every time we heard the Scripture read we thought of him. Every time a teacher of the Law would teach we heard his words. And whenever he was near we would go hear him.”
My companion and I had stopped walking for a moment. The short journey to Bethlehem was half completed. “He was born over there,” my companion said, pointing. “Just as the angel said.” We had descended into the deep ravine and now began our climb.
“I saw him once, two years later. It was Passover and my sons and I had taken to Jerusalem lambs for the temple so they might be inspected and used for the feast. The lambs could have no blemishes. I sold many lambs and was very happy.”
“He was in the temple teaching. There were large crowds around him quietly listening. Around the crowds were the religious leaders. They grumbled and whispered to each other. It was obvious they did not like him.”
“We stayed one night in Jerusalem. There were some lambs deemed unacceptable for the feast. We would lead them home the next day. We would be home by Sabbath.”
“There was a commotion in Jerusalem. And so close to the Passover! I sent my sons home with the lambs and stayed to see. The Romans were going to execute some men. They murdered people almost every week. There is a hill outside of the city where all of the crucifixions are done. Everyone sees. It is a horrible, humiliating way to die.”
“I watched as they drove three men to their deaths. One man they had beaten mercilessly. There was no place where there was not a cut or a gash. He carried his own cross, the wooden beam to which they would nail his arms. He stumbled right before me. The soldier grabbed a man next to me and forced him to carry the cross.”
“My heart went out to the condemned man. He could never have done anything to deserve such punishment. He stood. He looked at me in the eyes. It was Jesus. There was no hatred. He managed a small smile before trudging on.”
“I was crushed. My happiness turned to despair.”
“He had survived assaults on his life from infancy. But now he was only moments away from death. Angels of the Lord announced his birth. Maybe they would come defend him.”
“No angels came. They crucified him on top of the hill with the other two. I watched from a distance for a while then left. It was unbearable.”
We stopped at the outskirts of Bethlehem and stood still for a long time. My companion was again lost in thought. I did not force him to continue. While I waited I remembered his words, his stories, from the time we met until now. I could not forget them. He had seen much.
“The sky grew dark. I had walked already part way home in grief and anger and disbelief. It was so dark. There were no stars. And then the earth shook violently. It threw me to the ground. I imagined his angels finally came to fight for him. But the more I thought the more I knew they had not come. He had died. The world groaned and grieved his passing.”
“I was home before the beginning of the Passover Sabbath. Passover. A man of God was slain. I told my family and friends. We ate our Passover with bitter tears.”
He pointed to a place just outside of Bethlehem. “The angels told us to come over to Bethlehem and to look for a newborn in a feeding trough. We found him there,” my companion said pointing to a place a few steps away. Bethlehem spread out before us.
We had paused in front of a small grotto, the remains of a building jutted out from the hill. He looked in and pointed from one place to the next. “Here is where we saw Joseph. He stood as we approached his staff in his hand. Mary was lying there, but sat up when we came. And here lay the baby in a feeding trough filled with straw. He slept peacefully. It was just as the angel had said.”
“He was only minutes old. It was a cold night. When we told them what the angel said to us they told us what the angel said to them months earlier. We worshipped the Lord there. Then we went and told everyone who would listen what we saw and heard.”
“I did not see him born. But here he was. Angels sang about him.”
“I knew in my heart this little baby was Messiah. Still, it took the Lord another 30 years to teach me more I needed to know. I am still learning.”
“I thought he died as a baby. I knew he died as a man. Something in my heart knew our Lord was working.”
“Within days we began to hear rumors,” he said. “Rumors some had seen him alive. I did not see him die. But no one escapes the Romans as they go up that hill.”
“I remember standing here a few days after his death, thinking about the rumors which had reached my ears and remembered the night he was born. I believed the rumors. He had risen from the dead. How could death hold Him?”
“It was night, about the same time of night we had seen the baby. I was passing this place. I often do. That night I came and stood here, where we are standing. I was alone.”
“I did not see him come and stand next to me. I felt him. When I turned to see who was there I saw him. He reached out his hand and placed it on my shoulder. A real hand with weight to it and a grip. His eyes looked deep into mine. I had to say something. I said, ‘I knew you were alive.’ He smiled and said ‘Follow me.’ Then he was gone.”
“I have followed him, since.”