I hope I’m not abusing the right to re-run old material, but the gem below is more than worthy of the honor, especially during Christmastide. It is the late poet Rod Jellema’s memoir of the annual Christmas pageant at his boyhood church. Anyone who’s ever had to suit up in a bathrobe, angel wings, or cardboard Magi crown will resonate with Rod’s words from first to last—and will appreciate his theological acumen, so deftly conveyed.
The essay first ran in the Reformed Journal in January 1974 and was reprinted in The Best of the Reformed Journal (2011). In putting together that volume, my colleague Ronald Wells and I had to leave a lot of fine material on the cutting-room floor, but we never thought twice about this one. Re-reading the book a couple years later, I found “Shepherds Abiding” to be my favorite piece in the whole collection. It remains so today. I hope you like it as much.
“There Were These Shepherds, Abiding . . .”
by Rod Jellema
Every Christmas morning I used to walk to church early through the squeaking snow, flapping my bathrobe behind on a hanger. I always had to be a shepherd in the Christmas play. Some of the good kids (mostly girls) were Angels, and a few kids who weren’t afraid were Joseph and Mary and the innkeeper and Gabriel. The best thing I could shoot for was to be a Wise Man: the Wise Men got long shiny robes and turbans, like the man on the red and yellow coffee can. But you had to be almost as good all year in Sunday School to be a Wise Man as to be an Angel, so I always took my bathrobe to church and joined the shepherds.We always felt funny at first, standing around the darkwood high-raftered church in our bathrobes. Some of us had canes, and that made us feel like old men on the porch of the hospital. We used to wear those flannel robes—soft plaids, usually, or runny colors, with silky braided cords around the middle, and they didn’t look at all like the Bethlehem styles in the pictures. And they were always getting too short. But pretty soon, in all the confusion of trying to act like we were in the hills of Judea, we forgot that we were facing backward through the 14th Street Christian Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan. We forgot the parents and the older kids and the grandparents who were out there smiling and laughing.
The Christmas story is really simple. I always thought it would work best if we could just watch our sheep and talk like shepherds a while, and then see the star and the angels and walk to the stable to see the baby savior. But I guess it all happened in a more complicated way than that. We had to clatter off into the consistory room a few times while other things happened. I remember a long, polished table and very heavy books. Sometimes for a few minutes the Angels were out there with us, showing off a little and checking each other’s wings.
Some of us had to say some lines that we had learned and practiced, and of course we all knew how to sing Christmas songs when the piano came in. In between we just had to make up things to say. Shepherd talk. And through it all we would lean on canes or pet our fake sheep or rub our hands over fake fires. We were told to keep looking up as though looking for something—though I don’t think the first shepherds did that. But we shielded our eyes as though from the stars and scanned the horizon like sailors and looked up into the fat shafts of the gilt organ pipes that looked like Christmas-wrapped cigars with dove-holes in them.
We rubbed our hands and looked up and talked, and worked in the lines that some of us had learned.
1st shepherd: Well, it sure is cold!
2nd shepherd: Yeh.
3rd shepherd: I don’t see anything yet.
1st shepherd: I mean, it’s really cold!
4th shepherd: YEH!
2nd shepherd: We are nigh unto Bethlehem, the city of David, where the Messiah is to be born, that the Scriptures concerning him might be fulfilled.
3rd shepherd: How are your sheep doing?
1st shepherd: He shall be the consolation of Israel.
5th shepherd: Fine. How are your sheep doing?
3rd shepherd: He who was foretold of old. For . . .
4th shepherd: I hope my sheep aren’t getting too cold.
5th shepherd: Me too. Hark.
1st shepherd: Well, it sure does get cold here in Bethlehem of Ju—
5th shepherd: HARK!
. . . and in came Miss Velzinga on the piano with “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night,” and we all sat down to match what the words said, All Seated on the Ground (which was maroon carpet), tugging bathrobes over our knees, singing. And then one of the few boy-Angels came with the Tidings of Great Joy and we scurried around looking Sore Afraid and all the Angels came in (some of them giggling to see us in our bathrobes), and the Angels sang two songs that we weren’t supposed to sing with them. And then we filed off to the consistory room again.
But we got to come back at the end—to look at the Baby Jesus and Joseph and Mary and to kneel and bring gifts. The three Wise Men came with big fancy packages, wrapped by their mothers, but I didn’t care much. They got to say only one line, all together—“We have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him”—while we got to talk it up a little before the piano cut in and got us all singing.
There is never actually anything in the box in front of Joseph and Mary except some straw. You can see that up close. Our church doesn’t go much for images. But I remember when we were in third grade Lester Ver Steeg looked in carefully, drew back, and said “Wow!” very loud, and nobody laughed.
Mostly we would come into the quiet scene talking about how the Angels were right, here was this new baby, and we would set little gifts near the box. One year I had to bring him the wooden collection plate. I didn’t feel right about it because there was a churchy, dark-red velvet bottom that reminded me of communion, and the plate was empty anyway. I didn’t think Jesus would like it to play with. And once one of the shepherds, a first-grader, gave him a green car out of his bathrobe pocket. I thought Jesus would have liked it, but the teacher gave it back afterward and said it wasn’t appropriate.
At the finish we always sang another song or two, right along with the others, and then we all got the box of candy and the orange from the teachers. Nobody clapped of course, because this was in church.
I used to wish that at the end we could mix in with the Angels and join hands for the last song—but maybe that’s because I liked Ruthie, who was always an Angel. They kept us shepherds in our bathrobes mostly by ourselves, off to one side.
Christmas nights, after the presents and turkey and skating, with the Christmas voices of aunts and uncles going dim, I would try to think about it in bed, about being a shepherd. I knew that if I really worked at it I could switch to being an Angel. I wouldn’t have to walk around as a public spectacle in my bathrobe. But I never did switch, and I’m glad now—not just because the Angels were mostly girls and sissies, but because they could only sing the same old songs, just telling about what was going to happen and what was happening. The thing about us shepherds was, we were the ones the story happens to.
Maybe it’s wrong, not wanting to be an Angel. When I was little, Christmas nights, I used to worry about it. But I could never think it through because always on those nights, thinking about it, something warm and soft like cloth and starlight and distant singing would make me drowsy and drop me deep asleep. It was probably only carolers starting down State Street hill. It didn’t matter who. I knew it was shepherds they sang to first.