[From the 2011 ForeWords archive.]
To set the mood, here’s the Kings College Choir at Cambridge:
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” –Luke 2:8-14 NRSV
Angelic visitors return for a second week in the lectionary. Last Sunday Gabriel appeared to Mary; this time it’s an unnamed angel who appears to shepherds abiding with their flocks in the fields around Bethlehem. But that angel is suddenly joined by a multitude of the heavenly hosts praising God and proclaiming peace and good will. The first words spoken in each case were the same: Do not be afraid.
The shepherds, in particular, were terrified at first. And why shouldn’t they be, after all? This was definitely not the sort of thing that had ever happened. But now the child had been born, and so this was an event worth witnessing. Some unlucky shepherd no doubt had to stay with the sheep while the rest of them headed for town and a humble stable.
Although we don’t often think of it this way, fear has significant theological overtones. I would put myself in the category of those who contend that fear is the true opposite of faith, not doubt. Therefore, the angelic message “Fear not!” can be understood as a call to faith and faithfulness. In this instance God has not only done a new thing (which God has a habit of doing, I might add) but the one thing that changes everything–for humankind and for creation. With the birth of this child the tiny “seeds” of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven have been planted. And as with newly planted seeds buried in the soil, nothing appears to have changed. But in fact everything has.
Fear continues to drive and enable much of what happens in our own 21st-century world. It leads to violence, bigotry, injustice, and hatred. It keeps us from doing and being what we know deep in our hearts and minds is the right thing to do and be. Fear is, quite possibly, the most powerful tool available to our own version of what Apostle Paul referred to as “principalities and powers.”
Fear causes us to cling to the familiar, the common, the expected, the usual. But it doesn’t have to, of course. We celebrate this weekend the moment in the history of creation when fear began to lose its grip. Who would have expected then (or, for that matter, now as far as most people are concerned) that a child born in the most humble and unassuming of circumstances would be responsible?
A child is born and fear begins to lose its firm grip on a world in need of saving. Hallelujah!
One last YouTube video: Note the exact moment [0:32] when Linus drops his security blanket (believed to be the only time in Peanuts cartoon history when he did that):