“Abel’s Advent” is the second in a series of original short stories I am posting with a Christmas theme. The biblical Christmas story has for me an air of mystery about it, more than any other, which I wanted to convey in this piece. Another gift for my treasured readers.
The fields lay locked in the frozen stillness of a mid-winter day. Glorying in the tingle of frigid air on his cheeks, Abel stamped the frost-hardened trail alongside his grandfather toward the low hills cradling their farm. He had no name for the exquisite joy singing through his veins; all he knew was he could not wish to be anywhere else. No roof but endless sky, no lessons but what the wind whistled in his ears, his legs strong beneath him and his grandfather’s shadow keeping stride with his.
They were on their way to check on the sheep flock wintering in the shelter of the hills. It was the day before Christmas and if Abel and his family were going to enjoy tomorrow’s festivities, they needed to know all was well with their livestock. Abel whistled through his teeth to his dog Tip, exploring the trail ahead. She ran back to him, seeming to laugh up into his face with lolling pink tongue and eager eyes. She too felt the exhilaration of a perfect winter’s day sparkling through her limbs, and away she raced again.
Abel’s grandfather chuckled at Tip’s antics, swinging his arm around his grandson’s shoulders as they began their hill ascent. Perhaps he didn’t have the vigor of the boy and dog, but his seasoned gaze took in the winter beauty with quiet gratitude. Bare branches finely etched against an azure sky, the white winter sun glinting on frosted grass and trees. Creation called him closer to his home in heaven, his heart responding instinctively in praise to his Maker.
They glanced at each other at the first jangle of a sheep bell. It was reassuring to know the flock was nearby. Of all the farm creatures, Abel loved the sheep the most. Perhaps it was their gentle spirits or the peaceful way they had of grazing on a green summer hillside. He enjoyed caring for them and believed they gifted him with their trust. The next hours were taken with checking fences, water supply and the condition of the flock. When the two shepherds were satisfied with their tasks, they lit a warming fire in the shelter of a bluff and ate a simple lunch. Abel waited expectantly, for he knew what was coming next. At home with the family, his grandfather kept his own quiet counsel , but when they sat out under the open winter sky, the setting seemed to call out the tales and legends he remembered from of old, and Abel was a willing listener.
With his feet stretched out to the fire, the old man chewed contentedly on the stem of his pipe and squinted through the smoke at his grandson.
“There’s an old, old legend, my boy, about the animals on Christmas night. Have you ever heard what happens to them?”
Abel shook his head, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees.
“Some say that at the stroke of midnight, in stables and barns and fields around the world, God’s creatures kneel and pray in homage to the Christ Child. ‘Tis not to be proven, but many a generation has said it to be so.”
Smoke wreathed around the old shepherd’s head, lending an air of sacred mystery to the tale.
“When you think on it, the beasts in the stable were the first to see the Child, besides Mary and Joseph. Interesting that innocent creatures were there to welcome the Innocent One into the world. I wonder if they had a sense that He was the one who made them?”
He sucked on his pipe as he contemplated the sheep flock grazing peacefully nearby. Then shuffling stiffly to his feet, his grandfather exclaimed to Abel, “Ah, my boy, we are fortunate fellows to be out on a hillside with the flock on the eve of Christmas, just like those blessed shepherds long ago. Now keep your eyes open for the heavenly host!”
His grandfather laughed at Abel’s quick glance at the sky.
Tip’s sharp bark sounded in the distance. At first Abel thought the dog must have found a rabbit, but the barking grew higher and more frantic. Together he and his grandfather hurried up the hillside towards the commotion. The plaintive bleat of a sheep in distress joined Tip’s bark. Coming over a rocky outcrop, they found the dog circling round a ewe wedged between two boulders. Not only was she stuck, but she was about to give birth to an unexpected winter lamb. The experienced old shepherd quickly took stock of the dilemma, giving orders to Abel to bring the rope and burlap bag from their camp.
They worked intently to free the distressed ewe. Finally as she grew weak and tired, Abel and his grandfather maneuvered the rope around her forequarters and pulled her free. Minutes later she expelled a tiny tangle of legs and wet wool onto the cold earth. The old shepherd grabbed the burlap sack and briskly dried the tiny lamb until it bleated weakly and struggled to stand up. Wrapping the newborn in the sack, he gently lifted it into Abel’s arms.
“Keep her warm”, he instructed, then turned his attention to the prostrate ewe.
Abel was captivated by the tiny creature in his arms. She was scrawny and weak, yet fresh from her Maker’s hand, her new little life had the power to call forth all of Abel’s protective instincts. With the ewe on her feet now, they made ready to take her and her lamb back to the farm, where they would be safe and warm in the barn. Night was closing in and the temperature was dropping. Beneath them a blue twilight filled the valley bowl to its uneven rim and from there the night sky rose like swaths of silken fabric scattered with stars.
Carrying the tiny lamb in his arms, Abel tipped his face skyward with a sense of expectancy. In his spirit he knew this was no ordinary night. He wondered if the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth had a premonition of what was to come? That night must have begun as a thousand nights previous, yet before it was over their lives would be changed forever. The glory of the Lord shone from the sky around them in the glow of a great company of angels. The Savior of their souls showed himself in the helpless form of a newborn baby. How could the two be the same? Abel wondered. He knew the reality of God coming to earth as a baby. The truth of it was the foundation beneath his feet, yet the mystery of it expanded in his soul beyond knowing.
Night had descended completely by the time the shepherds and their flock of two reached the farmstead. They settled the ewe and her lamb on a bed of fresh hay in a corner of the barn, then went into the house to be warmed and fed themselves. Abel’s family was gathered around the table enjoying a Christmas Eve meal. He felt oddly reluctant to join in the noisy, warm circle, as if part of him wanted to linger under the cold night sky. There was a supernal air out there he wanted to breathe in a little longer, but he allowed his mother to draw him close to the fire and put a heaping plate of food in his hands. As he ate, he felt the knowing eye of his grandfather upon him. The old man nodded. The draw of this night was not new to him. He could see its power at work in his grandson.
Long after the household had settled around him in slumber, Abel lay awake. His uncovered window framed the cool, clear light of stars and moon, and it seemed the earth held its breath in anticipation. He would check on the ewe and her lamb again, although he had done so several times this evening. Tip rose from her mat by the back door to faithfully accompany her master across the yard to the barn. Its thick timbers held the warm aliveness of its occupants as a rock absorbs the heat of the sun. The farm beasts stirred only slightly in the soft glow of Abel’s lantern, for they knew him well, accepting his presence with gentle patience. He breathed in the wholesome scent of earth, hay and healthy animals and settled himself close to the ewe and lamb, with Tip by his feet. The little lamb blinked solemnly at Abel from near the protective flank of its mother. Though he could see all was well, he still lingered. His thoughts had the clarity of a midnight vigil and it seemed the walls between the ages had been removed in the magic hour, for he found himself imagining that long ago night of Jesus’ birth as if it were here and now. The cave-like enclosure of the stall became an ancient stable; the ewe’s feed trough, a manger of stone. Through a window high in the hay loft, he thought he saw a singular star gleaming brighter than all the others.
He dreamt on with open eyes until that strange false dawn when cocks crow and animals stir. A bell in the nearby town tolled midnight. On the first strike a quiet peace stilled the farm animals, yet they were all awake, their eyes uncommonly bright in the lantern light. The tale his grandfather had told him earlier became more than legend as he saw the draft horses and oxen lower their great heads. He could not watch. Struck with a holy awe, he threw his arm over his eyes and fell to his knees in the hay.
The twelve strokes of the bell seemed to keep time with the beating of his heart. This heart which was home to the Savior born on this night long ago…. this heart expanding in worship to the Holy Child…. this heart still young enough to experience the mystery of the Incarnation, yet wise enough to know it to be the purest truth ever told. He had no right to be here at the hour when God’s creatures gave Him honor. But he did not leave. He stayed kneeling by a stack of hay, then slept a deep peaceful sleep with his head on his arms.
His grandfather came to the barn at dawn. He was not surprised to find Abel there, asleep on his knees in the hay. He looked into the wise eyes of the farm animals and nodded knowingly. Then he took a pitch fork to the hay which lay flattened in front of where each animal stood, and he sang his grandson awake with an old Christmas hymn.
Before the paling of the stars,
Before the winter morn,
Before the earliest cock crow
Jesus Christ was born.
Born in a stable,
Cradled in a manger,
In the world His hands had made, born a stranger.
Jesus on His mother’s breast in the stable cold
Spotless lamb of God was He
Shepherd of the fold.
Let us kneel with Mary, Maid
With Joseph, bent and hoary
With saint and angel, ox and ass
To hail the Lord of Glory. *
* “Before the Paling of the Stars” by Christina Rosetti; Lyra Messianica pub. 1864
* “The Evening Glow” painting by Joseph Farquharson; Scottish landscape artist 1846-1935