While Jacob sat patting his young pup, his mother finished serving several portions of the evening meal into a large covered dish, and added a bag containing bread for all those who watched that night. It would be his job to take these meals to his father who was minding their sheep on the hillside just outside Bethlehem. As soon as his mother had finished, and given him messages from her sister, Jacob began his journey.
Quietly he traversed the rolling hills, careful that he did not fall and spill the hot meal. His pup walked beside him, sensing this was no time for games and keeping pace while sniffing the night air to catch whatever scents it offered. The crisp wintry night sky was filled with stars, and the moon provided enough light to guide his way. He was almost old enough to take a turn at watching the flock, for he had spent many hours with his father and the other shepherds, learning which plants had healing properties if any of his charge fell sick. He learned the names of all the sheep, and watched for stragglers as they returned to their fold at night. Together they had watched the skies, the older men pointing out the stars that guided their footsteps across the hills, and he had learned to watch for changes in the sky that would forewarn of snowstorms or even hail stones. All these things helped shepherds care properly for their flocks.
There ahead he saw his father’s silhouette, and he called out a greeting. His father echoed the greeting across the hill and the boy saw the shapes of other shepherds moving closer, for they all shared whatever evening meal was dispatched for them. Holding an orphaned lamb in his arms, Jacob watched the hungry men finish the lentil stew and cram the last pieces of bread into their mouths. They could spare little time away from their charges, for wolves roamed the hills this time of the year, and no flock was ever safe. Then as they carefully clambered to their feet, the sky was suddenly lit, as if an evening sun had taken its place in the heavens.
And as the night sky brightened, there appeared a myriad of angels, singing in the sweetest voices any one had heard. The men stopped, puzzled. But from among the angels there came one majestic figure who spoke to them, subduing their fears, and giving them the news that in the town of Bethlehem a baby had just been born. This was a special baby; he was the promised Christ, the Messiah, and he and his parents could be found there in a stable. The voices of the angelic choir rose again in triumph, for this was the news all creation had waited to hear. Then, just as suddenly as the angels had appeared, their voices trailed away, and they and the brightness of the sky disappeared from view.
The shepherds were almost speechless. Then they ran to their flocks, and drove them together into a large flock, a flock that could still fit in the sheepfold and be guarded by a reliable boy. Jacob’s father looked at his son in amazement for even though he knew his son was capable, the other shepherds had decided that Jacob could care for all the flocks that night. The shepherds would all hurry to the village of Bethlehem to find this baby the angels had announced. Left all alone, Jacob reached for the pouch at his waist withdrawing a sling and a handful of smooth stones. These he laid on the ground directly in front of him. He then pulled his small flute gently from his cloak, and started to play. His pup took up a position by the entrance to the sheepfold where he could protect both the flock and his master. The sheep loved the sounds he produced, and began to settle down for the night. And as he played, Jacob noticed that a small light seemed to be moving across the heavens towards him.
Slowly the light stopped and Jacob could see the figure of a small angel, one almost his size. The angel looked dismayed and lost. Jacob plucked up courage and asked this visitor if he belonged to the throng of angels that had appeared earlier. “Yes,” came the reply, “I was a bit late leaving heaven and since I haven’t trained with the choir long, no one made sure I was among them when they left. I thought they might still be near Bethlehem, so here is where I came.” Jacob sat for a moment and then asked, “Since no one knows you are here, could you stay a while and talk to me? All the shepherds have left and my dog and I are minding every flock tonight.” With that, the dog moved closer to the angel who stretched out his hand and patted the pup’s head.
The small angel was delighted. He knew that sooner or later he would be missed, but until then he could stay with the shepherd lad and keep him company. Jacob asked what heaven was like, and the angel just smiled. His face lit up with inner light and peace as he replied, “It is beautiful. All my friends are there, there are wonderful trees, and lots and lots of people. And everyone is happy. I miss my Mother and Father, but I know one day they will come and join me.”
The angel stopped, and seeing the flute, asked Jacob to play. The angel was so delighted he clapped his hands, and his wings quivered behind him with excitement. “Are there words to this melody?” he asked. Jacob shyly told the angel the words of the psalm and the angel slowly repeated them. Then together they began a duet, the boy playing his flute softly, while the angel sang the words. It was remarkable, the flute had never sounded so pure and yet so resonant. It was as if his uncle, who taught in the Synagogue, was fingering the notes. The angel stared at Jacob in astonishment. “You play just as well as some of the senior angels in heaven,” he pronounced. “Why, the sheep all lift their heads to listen as you play.”
“Will you be a musician when you grow up?” asked the angel. Jacob smiled shyly and shook his head. “No, I will be a shepherd, like my father and his father before him. Our fathers teach us all they know, and this way we are able to continue the work for which their fathers also were responsible. Our family have been shepherds here for many generations. No one knows who kept the first flock on these hills. This is why the sheepfolds in which our sheep sleep at night are so well built. They were first made many years ago, and each shepherd is responsible for keeping them as safe and secure as did their grandfathers.”
The shepherd sighed. “I wish you could teach me how to play your flute,” he ventured. Jacob handed his flute to the young angel, and quietly showed him how to hold his fingers so that the notes he blew were clear and pure. It seemed that this angel also could be a great musician, for he held the flute as if it were very precious, and took great care to play each note as Jacob directed him. Jacob was bursting with joy as he listened to his pupil play a very simple line of melody.
“I wish I could stay here and learn all the songs you can play,” the angel said wistfully. But I don’t think I will be allowed to keep visiting until I could play as well as you do. In fact, I really believe I hear my name being called. Someone has already discovered I am missing. I must return soon or they will be worried about me.” He rose, and the light around him flickered for a moment. He handed Jacob the flute and turned to face the night sky.
“Stay a moment,” called Jacob. And without another word he pressed the flute into the angel’s hand. “Please take it, and keep practising until the day I come to heaven to hear you play.”
In the blink of an eye the angel disappeared, and the sky resumed its usual night appearance. Just then Jacob heard the voices of the returning shepherds. They were speaking excitedly about the baby they had seen in the stable. It would be a story they shared first with their families, and then with all who chose to climb the hills to hear their news.
Jacob sat quietly until the flocks had been separated, and then crept close to his father. “May I tell you what happened while you were away,” he started, “and of the angel who is playing my flute now in heaven?” His father listened to the tale, then smiled indulgently, and wondered how his son had invented such a story.
And yet, from that night onward, from time to time he would catch the boy and his dog sitting quietly as if they could hear the music that emanated from some place far away. But it was the wonder and rapture on his son’s young face as he listened intently that made the shepherd scratch his head and ask himself if that story could possibly be true. Perhaps a time would come when he would discover for himself the truth of the missing flute. It may well be if at night you sit very quietly looking up at the stars and listen intently, you too will be able to hear an angel playing the shepherd’s flute, and share in the magic of that night on the hills outside Bethlehem.
Rev. Vera I. Bourne of Lismore, N.S.W., Australia, served as Outreach Clergy at Christs Community Church.