Thursday, December 14, 2006

David Kossoff, "Seth"

My father and my grandfather were shepherds. It is a thing that runs in families. My sons own their own farms and their own sheep, but that is progress. I always looked after other people's sheep. That was not unusual when I was younger. We were looked down on, I suppose, for often we had to work every day, ignoring the sabbath, and with so many priests among the people, we were often told we were breaking the law. Though where the priests would have got their perfect lambs for sacrifice without us I don't know. They could be very rude the priests especially the young silly ones. It's the same today, and not just with priests: people speak before they think. That's one good thing about looking after sheep: you get into the habit of keeping quiet. If you have to use words, you take your time to get them right. Words are important.

People often tell me that mine was a dull life. Well, maybe. I like to watch the night sky, the moon and the stars. Once I saw, at night, a sight that very few have seen. Just once, but once was enough for any man. If a priest is rude to me, I always say to myself, It doesn't matter. I had that night, and you didn't.

I was about nineteen at the time, and although it's now about fifty years ago, I remember it like yesterday. On this night I'm talking about, we'd met up where we usually did, on the side of quite a big hill. We'd had a bite to eat and drink and were sitting talking. Around us our hundreds of sheep. All normal and usual and quiet. Very restful and quiet, those talks at night. It was a dark night.

Then there was a sort of stillness and a feeling of change, of difference. We all felt it. I had a friend called Simon, and he first noticed what the change was. It was the light. There was a sort of paleness. It was a dark night, but suddenly it wasn't so dark. We began to see each others faces very clearly in a sort of silvery, shimmering light. We seemed surrounded and enclosed in a great glow. It was the purest light I ever saw. The sheep were white as snow. Then as our eyes began to ache with it, just farther up the hill from us the glow seemed to intensify and take shape, and we saw a man. Like us but not like us. Taller, stiller. Though we were still enough, God knows.

He looked at us and we looked at him. We waited for him to speak. It didn't seem right we all felt it for any of us to speak first. He took his time as though to find the right words and then he began to tell us what he called good news of great joy. Of a new born baby, born in David's town. A baby sent by God to save the world, to change things, to make things better. He told us where to go and find the baby and how to recognise him. And to tell other people the good news. His own pleasure in telling us filled us with joy: we shared his pleasure, if you follow me. Then he stopped speaking and became two. Then four, then eight, and in a second there seemed to be a million like him. Right up the hill and on up into the sky. A million. And they sang to us. Glory to God, they sang, And on earth peace to all men. It was wonderful. It came to an end and then they were gone. EVery single one, and we felt lonely and lost.

Then Samuel, who was the eldest of us, said "Come, let us go and find the baby. David's town, the angel said: Bethlehem. In a manger. In swaddling clothes. And off we went. We ran, we sang, we shouted, we were important, we'd been chosen. We were special. We were on a search. We had to find a baby.

And we did find him. We were led there. There was no searching, we were led, and we saw for ourselves. Not much to see, perhaps. A young mother and her husband and a newly born baby. Born in a stable because all the inns were full. Poor people they were. The man was a carpenter.

Well, we did as we'd been told. We spread the word, and people did get excited. But not for long. Nothing lasts. We shepherds were heroes for a while, but then everyone knew the story. It was old news. Soon we were just shepherds again, doing a dull job. But we were different from all the rest: we'd had that night. I don't talk about it much any more, but it keeps me warm. I was there.

by David Kossoff,
from The Book Of Witnesses