Eyewitness Christmas: Tellin' it how it was

Editor's note: Tony, an angel, visits earth fairly often now because there is a lot for him to do here. He dictated this article to an old friend of ours, Ed Madden, about 13 years ago, while he was still with us. He says they are still engaging in a bit of deviltry, and enjoying every heavenly minute of it. By Tony, an Angel

I don't really know how I got picked for the job of going down to Bethlehem that night. It certainly wasn't my great singing voice. You folks think all angels are born singers, but we're not. As a matter of fact I haven't been able to get into any of the choirs of angels. Not that I mind. They're a little too cliquish for my taste. You know how it is. The Seraphim think they're better than the Cherubim, who look down on the Dominions, et cetera. Me, I don't have time for that nonsense. Of course, we don't have time at all.

Anyway, Melvin, one of the archangels, comes to me and says the Boss needs a bunch of us to rush down to earth for a job. Now, I'd never been to earth. It's way across the void and, frankly, I'd never really had a desire to go. It's where all the newcomers are from. In heaven we have two kinds of folks, the angels and the newcomers - the humans. We've been there for like, forever, and they've more or less just arrived. They're still coming. Every day. Kind of like what you call immigrants. It takes them a while to get used to our ways, but basically we get along just fine. Some of my best friends are humans.

So Melvin say, "This here's a singing job, and I know you can't carry a note, but the people who'll hear you won't know the difference. It's not like you're going to a synagogue or church." I didn't know what a church was, and as it turned out they hadn't been invented yet. A small point, since we weren't going to one anyway.

As we winged our way across the void, Melvin filled us in on a few details. I tell ya, I got pretty impressed with myself. I'd been selected to attend one of the central events of salvation. I was about to become an eyewitness to history. I was thinking of all the important people I would meet. Well, I tell ya, I quickly became unimpressed, particularly with whoever was running the show. And if that was the Boss, so be it. It was pretty poor. We sure as hell - sorry, heck - weren't going to a synagogue. We landed at a bloody barn. I figured that Melvin, 'cuz he was leading us, was lost. But he says that this is the right place. I didn't know what to think.

Like I said, here we are at this barn. It was like a large lean-to with walls on the side. There were a few oxen and cows, two donkeys and a mule, some dogs, and about seven shepherds, sitting around drinking and smoking. And the smell! I mean, all those animals hanging around in there. They do more than just hang, believe me. Wow! Not that my home is perfect, but this was a bit much.

All of a sudden, I knew the action was about to get underway when Melvin starts getting officious. You know: "Look sharp, boys and girls"; "Pay attention - watch for my signals." All that silliness. Anyway, I'm looking around for some dignitaries, a procession, or something like that, but all I can see are a couple of young people coming across the field. The woman was riding a donkey, they guy was walking. And they were heading straight for the barn.

They came right up to where we all were, and the guy helps the girl down. Its obvious that she's pregnant - very pregnant. "Shalom," they guy says to the shepherds, who shalom him back. That means "peace" in this part of the earth. "I'm Joseph of Nazareth and this is my wife, Miriam," the guy says. One of the shepherds cracks, "What good ever came out of Nazareth?" and they all laugh, Joseph and Miriam too. Must be a local joke.

"This damn census of the Roman forced us to come all the way down here to Bethlehem," Joseph said. "As you can see, Miriam's about to have a baby. The timing couldn't be worse. And can you believe, there's not a single place to stay in the village. Any chance we could share the shelter of your barn?"

Well, I tell you, I've never seen such hospitality. The shepherds jumped up and made a place for the newcomers. They guy who seemed to be the boss - much have been an archshepherd - insisted that Joseph and Miriam sit on a clean pile of hay.

They broke out some bread and meat and wine for them, though Miriam didn't have any wine. "The baby, you know," she said. So they all sat around chatting. Since the folks from Nazareth had come to Bethlehem, their ancestors must have come from here, and like Dorchester people today, they all had to find out who was related to them.

Well, Joseph starting talking about his father, Jacob, and his grandfather, Matthan, and Matthan's father, Eleazar, and on through Eliud and Achim, and so on. I was all ears, because of course I know all of them. They've been with us for a while now. Nice family. Well brought up. You know how the conversation went. If Joseph was the great-great grandson of Eliud and Achim, then he had to be related to Hezekiah, who lived beside the grain store, and Jechoniah the butcher was probably a distant cousin, too.

They were having a grand old time comparing notes on relatives when Miriam let out a groan. Everyone looks at her and she's holding her stomach. I could see Joseph grow seven shades paler. "Oh, dear God," he says, somewhat prophetically as it turns out. "It can't be now." The archshepherd turned to one of the younger fellows and tells him to get his butt into Bethlehem just as fast as he can and get Naomi the midwife.

Well, you can tell all kinds of people all kinds of things, but you can't tell a baby it ain't time to be born, and that's just what happened here. The kid was hardly out of sight over the hill when Miriam started yelling and most of the shepherds, and half of the animals, too, beat a retreat out of the barn. The archshepherd seemed to know what he was doing, luckily, because Joseph sure as hell - sorry, heck - didn't. I felt bad for Joe. It was pretty cool that night but he was an absolute river of sweat. And of course, we angels were of no help, 'cuz we don't have this sort of thing going on in heaven.

So there was all the activity around Miriam. I could hear the baby crying, but I couldn't see it. Joseph pulled some cloth out of a bag and wrapped it around the baby. I heard mention of swaddling clothes, whatever they are, but it looked like an ordinary wool blanket to me. Then I got a look at Miriam's face. I tell you I never saw a more lovely smile or a more beautiful face. She was gazing at the baby, absolutely adoring it, I would have said.

And then I saw the baby for the first time, and believe me, it was like lightning hit me. It was the Boss's son! He looked different, of course. He looked just like any other human baby. But it was the Boss's son! Talk about confused. It took me several years, 33 in fact, to get this sorted out. What was Number Two doing in human form, and what on earth was he doing getting born in a barn? We don't stand on ceremony in heaven like you folks think we do, and he has always been a pretty regular guy, but getting born in a bloody stinking barn! Like I said, I had to watch him in action over he next three decades before I began to understand, and even now, a lot of it's still a mystery to me.

Speaking of his return, if you think that the beginning of his life on your earth was ungodly, wait till you see how he ended it. What a guy! It's absolutely amazing what he went through for you humans. And all 'cuz he and the Boss love you. He sure must, to do all that. Wow!

Anyway, Joseph, who was getting himself under control, told the shepherds that the boy's name was to be Jesus. That apparently was our cue, because just then Melvin starts waving his hands and we suddenly became visible and starts singing, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased." It was pretty poor singing, if you ask me, even though I'm no expert, but the shepherds seemed pleased as punch, though they kept looking at us a little strangely, and Joseph and Miriam just kept gazing at Jesus, like the happiest parents on the whole earth.

Your Saint Luke got his story a little botched up, but then, he wasn't there, was he? I was. He wrote that the shepherds come out to the barn because an angel appeared to them. But they were there all the time, and it was Melvin who explained to them that this was the savior, also known as the messiah. This got them pretty excited, because the Jews had been waiting 2000 years for the messiah to come lead them. I also got them as confused as I had been when I realized who the baby was. I heard them talking. They just hadn't pictured the messiah coming this way. One of them said that he always thought that the messiah was going to swoop down in the chariot that took Elijah up to heaven. Another shepherd said he figured the messiah would arrive leading an army of angels who would chase all the Romans right back to where they came from. "And this sorry group sure was no army." he said, glancing at where we had been, but we had become invisible again, and he couldn't see us. So what's he think he is, a music critic for the Jerusalem Post? Humans get airs, ya know.

Well, I guess you know the rest of the story. Jesus grew up to be a fine young man and did heaps of good, but it took a lot of mental gymnastics for people to see that he really was the messiah. Funny, it was always the simple folks like the shepherds who cottoned to him. A lot of the so-called educated people have so much silly stuff in their heads that they can't cross the street without help. And they can't see who Jesus really is. Even today.

Be seein' ya.