A Dog’s Life.
Struth it was cold that night, so cold it ate right into your bones when you lay down. I really am getting too old for these long night watches. So anyway, there we were – me, the boss and … oh by the way I ought to tell you I’m a dog. A sheepdog to be precise, winner of the Bethlehem and district ‘One Man and His Dog’ sheep trials three years on the trot, (if you’re at all interested).
Things down in the town were getting really hectic, what with all the comings and goings, with definitely more arrivals at the moment than departures. All because of a cockeyed idea from some bloke called Augustus. I can’t see why humans get so worked up about answering questions and scribbling things down on scrolls, give me a good juicy bone and a dollop of something really smelly to roll in any day.
So, because of Augustus and his brilliant notion, that winter Bethlehem was packed to the rafters with the food liable to run out at any moment. You never knew when someone was going to take a fancy to a succulent leg of freshly roasted mutton. Old Mordecai, he’s the boss, was taking no chances so there we were, me, the boss and his three sons huddled round a blazing fire on the coldest night of the year watching the flock.
The boss was his usual cheerful self, grumbling about young Ruben, “Why is he taking so long coming back from the town with the wine skin? Why don’t the Romans sling their hooks back to Rome and leave us Israelites alone, we never wanted to be part of their la di da empire with all its, so called, benefits of civilisation. After all, what have the Romans ever done for us?” and so he went on … and on … and on.
He calmed down eventually, after Ruben came back with the wine and soon they were all chatting away about this, that and the other. I’d got as close to the fire as I could and was starting to feel the warmest I had for hours. Ruben was talking about a couple who had arrived in town just as he was leaving, they’d been travelling all day, had nowhere to stay and the poor woman was just about to have a baby. Sleep was just stealing over me when all of a sudden … the hilltop was bathed in light, which was odd because it wasn’t a full moon that night. I opened one eye, cautious like, and there he was, my master, the man who had faced down a pack of wolves in his prime, the one man I really look up to looking scared out of his wits and kneeling on the freezing cold ground … and him with rheumatics!!
When I opened the other eye I had to blink several times the light was so bright. Like everyone else I looked up and there they were figures, hundreds of them, bathed in a bright golden glow and hovering above the hilltop on huge silent wings. After a moment of stunned silence the leader of the group spoke. “Fear not,” he said and his voice sent a shiver down my back all the way to the tip of my tail. “Fear not, for I bring you glad tidings of great joy. Tonight in Bethlehem a boy has been born, the child who will be mankind’s saviour. His name is Jesus and you will find him lying in a manger.”
After he had finished speaking the singing started. Now we dogs are not known for our musical abilities, anyone who has heard one howling at night will vouch for that, but even I could appreciate this. This wasn’t the usual din I was used to, the sort that the boss and his lads make after a jar or two of wine at the village inn. This was your genuine 24-carat angelic choir complete with trumpets, harps, drums and cymbals … in fact, the works.
The next thing I know the boss is bouncing about like a spring lamb shouting, “Come on lads, we’ve got a baby to visit, we’ll take him a lamb as a present.” ‘Oh great’ I thought, ‘they’re off to visit a snug, warm and cosy pub while I’m left up here with my nose frozen to the ground looking after the prime contenders for the ‘Most Stupid Animals on God’s Good Earth Award.’ However, before I could start feeling sorry for myself the boss came over, tickled me behind the ears and said, “Hello old boy, you coming too?”
“But what are we going to do about the sheep?” Ruben whined. I shot him a ‘shut up’ look and growled softly in the back of my throat, I did not want to be left behind. The boss raised a quizzical eyebrow and pointed up at the sky, “And just who is going to try stealing sheep with that lot up there?”
After half an hours brisk walk we arrived in Bethlehem’s main square and found ourselves outside of the inn that Ruben had told us about. Its stable was cramped, run down and neglected; the straw on the floor hadn’t been changed for weeks.
In one corner of the room the proud parents were sitting on bales of hay, they had wrapped up their baby and laid him in the animals’ manger, just as the angel had said. The opposite corner was occupied by their donkey and an old cow. A large tabby cat lay curled up on a pile of sacks, oblivious to the mice scurrying through the straw looking for food. Up in the rafters a pair of roosting doves snuggled up to each other cooing softly. The roof was festooned with cobwebs. I watched entranced as a spider tried, time and time again, to spin a new web only to have it torn to shreds by the draught blowing in through a crack in the wall.
Despite the hustle and bustle of the town and the inn next door there was a feeling of deep peace in that stable. The Boss and his boys went over to the manger to take a look at the little boy while the lamb and I joined the huddle of animals.
When he reached the makeshift cradle Mordecai hesitated for a moment, then stretched out one of his huge, gnarled hands and gently brushed a finger tip across the sleeping child’s cheek. The baby stirred, reached out and closed his tiny fist around the outstretched finger. For the first time since his wife Miriam had died many, many years ago I watched as old Mordecai’s face broke into a beaming grin of joy, “I reckon you’ve got a right special boy there missus,” he chuckled. “Just you look after him.”
Shortly after our arrival three more men turned up. In they came with their long, richly embroidered silk robes dragging through the dust, surrounded by a cloud of incense and perfume, (I could smell them long before they came in through the door). The cat wrinkled up her nose in disgust and stalked off into the night. I took one look at them gathered round the manger in the space vacated by the boss and could tell that they weren’t from these parts.
Well by now it was getting really crowded in that pokey little room, thank goodness they had left their camels out in the yard! I must admit, I’ve never really got on with camels, nasty, bad-tempered, smelly things if you ask me … and don’t get me started on the spitting business.
As I was saying, the Boss and his boys had shuffled off to one side. The three strangers went up to the baby and then they knelt down. “Now this has got to be one very special baby,” I said to the other animals. “No rich man would kneel in all that mucky straw for anything less than a king.”
“What are they giving him?” muttered the donkey, who was rather short sighted and having difficulty seeing what was going on. I listened to the conversation between the visitors and the couple before replying, “Gold, frankincense and myrrh.”
So that was definite then, here was a special baby, because these were very expensive gifts and would not be given to just anybody. To be honest though I don’t understand why people value things like that so much, after all, you can’t eat them and they certainly don’t keep you warm on a cold winter’s night.
After a while things in the stable became quieter. The three strangers drifted off back to their camp outside of town and the Boss took his sons through to the inn for a quick drink before heading back to the hills. One of the doves fluttered down and perched on the edge of the manger, the man and his wife curled up in the hay under an old threadbare blanket and drifted off to sleep leaving the baby in the care of us animals.
We stood in a quiet huddle while the lamb and I told them all about what had happened out on the hillside and what the angel had said. We spent a very long time thinking about what it all might mean. Eventually I said to the others, “Alright then, we know this child is special so, what gifts can we give him?”
The donkey spoke up first, “I will give him my strength, so that he may bear the weight of the sins of the world.”
“I will give him my gentle nature,” bleated the lamb, “so that all will love him.”
“My sweet breath is my gift,” the cow lowed quietly, “so that those who hear him speak will listen.”
“I will give him my peace and serenity,” cooed the dove.
“I too would give him a gift,” whispered a voice above us. We looked up and there sat the spider in middle of a perfect web that glittered with frost. “I will give him the gift of patience to face the trials of the world without complaint.”
That just left yours truly. So what could an old grey haired dog like me give to the likes of him? I padded quietly over to the manger and gently nuzzled the sleeping child. The boy opened his eyes and looked at me with a gaze full of compassion and wisdom beyond his years. “To you I will give the gift of loyalty so that those who love you will follow, as the sheep follow their good shepherd.”