Certain Poor Shepherds

Certain Poor Shepherds December 24, 2014

4170806345_e0f381d5e2_zLong ago, when there were only three television stations, you had to wait for what you wanted. That feature had the benefit of making things exceptional, which is the perplexing irony of our times. Able to have all so quickly—with high speed downloads and internet superhighways—things don’t hold their value as long. Our taste buds are sanded clean from a glut of widely available sugar, a torrent of rainbows has blasted us colorblind, and iTunes has stunned us tone-deaf and tin-eared.

In the past, anticipation—having to wait—raised the worth of the arrival. We learn this lesson at Lent every year, and promptly forget it on Easter Monday. But hardheaded as we are, that’s the true way of things. Nuns and monks often tell the disbelieving that without privation, you cannot know joy; without sacrifice, you cannot marvel at abundance. St. Theresa slept on straw; St. Theresa walked barefoot; and yet, St. Theresa achieved her ecstasy. How about you?

It’s a sad fact that at this time of year, I don’t need anything much. What’s a new sweater or a gift certificate to me now? It doesn’t even seem like Christmas comes as slowly as it used to; every time you turn around, the wreaths and lights are going up. But it wasn’t always so.

When I was a child, there were things called “Specials” on those three stations I mentioned, and the “Christmas Special” was the best of all. Once a year, there were music specials (hosted by crooners and comedians who, if still living, now sell candles and golf clubs on HSN), and religious specials, like the midnight Mass from Rome (translated by a man with the most beautiful of speaking voices), and cartoon specials, the best of which were replayed—only once—every year. If you missed them, tough luck; you felt the cost of bad timing back then, when the clock and calendar mattered.

There were also big dramatic events around Christmas, like the productions of the “Hallmark Hall of Fame.” That very name was a gold standard for dramatic achievement. Now, what with an eponymously-named channel exclusively devoted to low romantic treacle, Hallmark is anything but special. Regardless, back then, they had ambition. They were something to wait for.

One such effort, replayed at Christmas for years, was “The Littlest Angel,” a musical version of the classic children’s book by Charles Tazewell. While I didn’t care for the songs, the tale was good.

It involves a little shepherd boy who dies and goes up to heaven, where he becomes very homesick. Thanks to a kindly old seraph, he’s allowed to return to earth and retrieve a box that contains his prized possessions. The things he’s collected are of value only to him—butterfly wings, a robin’s egg, some smooth stones from the river where he’d played, and a leather strap that was his faithful shepherd dog’s collar.

When the news spreads of Jesus’ coming birth, all the angels work on presents for him. The littlest angel has only the box to give—which of course pleases God the most because of its purity and sacrifice. It alone among all the gifts begins to shimmer, glow, then rise to the heavens to become the Star of Bethlehem.

Now the reason I’m mentioning this is because after seeing that special, and being the impressionable boy that I was, I got it into my head that I needed to have such a box. As it turned out, my brother had just finished making a crude cube for his shop class—a rough square made of plywood with a top held on by door hinges. He didn’t care for the thing, so I confiscated it and began my task. The object gathering went on for quite some time, until the box was filled. I also decorated the outside surface with stickers that came from cereal boxes.

I had the occasion to find that box recently as I was cleaning out closets for an impending move. There it sat on a shelf, unopened for years. Of course, what you expect to hear—deserve to hear—is that as I pulled out those treasures, one by one, my heart was warmed at the endearing things that I found inside. A flood of memories beset me as the decades slipped past…

Nope. As far as I could tell, it was just a bunch of trash. Some marbles, parts of a board game, jigsaw puzzle pieces, a little plastic army man, assorted badges, a strip of green stamps, a coupon for Purina dog food (?), and a spent bottle of aftershave.

What the hell was I doing?

While the littlest angel spent his few earthly years being inspired by the simple things and finding great meaning in them, it seems that I myself got no further than the “simple” part. The “specialness” angle eluded me altogether. The littlest angel created a reliquary for the pure; all I did was make a trash can.

So it seems I was a child of this age well before my time. Because the truth is, I couldn’t wait. I wanted to manufacture specialness. I wanted the box to be full and significant the minute that I got it. And honestly, I don’t know that I’m too much better even now.

But maybe I will be in days to come, for at least my lesson is a simple one, fit for the season: We all have something worth waiting for, and it’s impossible to fabricate worth. Better to bear empty hands in search of treasure than to fill them with whatever is shiny and close. Better to wait, and watch—poverty is all eyes—for what will reveal itself in time.

It comes, or so the story goes. It comes even on the coldest winter’s night, and even to the most unlikely; even to us, does it come, the certain poor shepherds, in fields where we lay.


A.G. Harmon teaches Shakespeare, Law and Literature, Jurisprudence, and Writing at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. His novel, A House All Stilled, won the 2001 Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel.

Photo above by Huge Cool, used under a Creative Commons license.

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