“And the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.”
There are good reasons to be afraid. Who doesn’t know the feeling? Fear is more than likely the first emotion that we experience. Some of us never quite get over it. We live all our lives out of a context of basic fear. What will happen that I am not prepared for? What will I do if I am pulled up short? What if disaster strikes and catches me off-guard? And, most important of all, what will people think?
But there is fear and then there is fear. Not all fear is the same. I learned, perhaps incorrectly, in elementary school that there were only two fears we are born with: fear of falling and fear of loud noises. We have evolved to have a great many fears that cause us to respond by protecting ourselves. But the fears of the shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night cannot be so easily parsed. The story is about how those shepherds are filled with fear because they are visited by an angel and then surrounded by glory.
Is it fair to say that on our short list of things we fear most, being visited by an angel and being surrounded by glory would not appear? To speak in a bit (but only a bit) of hyperbole, half of us have decided that there is no such thing as angels and nothing remotely resembling otherworldly glory. The other half of us have thoroughly domesticated all the tools of transcendence so that the only angels we know are the ones sitting atop Christmas trees, and the magnificence apt to dazzle us is what humans make and sell at high prices. Ah, that is too cynical a thing to say on Christmas Eve, don’t you think?
Let’s change the subject.
Several years ago when our grandson Grady was two or three, Joe and I gave him a little crèche, one of those Fontanini crèches to which one can keep adding quite lovely but unbreakable figures. Grady, now six, and his sister Frannie, three, like to play with the crèche when it comes out during Advent. Last week their mother heard a conversation going on between brother and sister in the next room, which did not seem to be going all that well. Frannie marched into the kitchen holding Joseph in one hand, the other hand on her hip. “Mom,” she asked, “is Mary married to this guy?” Her mother confirmed that she was, whereupon Frannie threw Joseph down onto the floor exclaiming, “That’s not right! He’s not her true love!” It turns out that Frannie had determined that Mary’s true love was the handsome shepherd boy. She was not about to let go of her notion. So later, when her mother went into the den, here was Joseph atop the stable, while Mary and the shepherd were on either side of the manger tending the Baby Jesus.
Early do we learn to weave stories that delight us and re-enforce the things we believe or would like to believe! Suppose Frannie could for a moment enter the world of the shepherd who she is convinced is in love with Mary. Aside from the probability that the shepherd would not look like someone on the Georgetown crew circa 1934, and would be smelling of sheep dung and whatever beans he had eaten for supper, the shepherd might actually tell a tale that would shock our little Frannie. (Or not, since children are not so easily rattled as adults.) The shepherd might talk of something as mysterious as anything Frannie and Grady have seen in Star Wars movies, more riveting and compelling than the high fashion to which Barbie alludes in movies called by her name, harder to believe than the most mesmerizing of Santa myths. That shepherd might take Frannie on his lap and tell her a story about how in the middle of the night once upon a time, he and others of his friends and brothers were abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flock. He might tell in halting whispers how terror-stricken he was that a being of light had invaded his pasture, when he was all but certain that if there were a God that God would certainly have no more use for him than the priests and Levites scurrying about their duties in the remote Jerusalem temple. And this hunky, bulked up shepherd, might startle our little Frannie by sharing how shattered and scared he and his buddies were when suddenly the skies were alive with buzzing little beings zooming here and there, singing doxologies that were now impossible to describe. If only her shepherd had a tongue up to the task of telling the tale!
Easier not to admit the intruder Mystery. Easier to bar the entrance of what Madeline L’Engle called “The Glorious Impossible.” Make of the shepherd a character in a sentimental play about the birth of a baby that has all the credentials of a god but who changes virtually nothing in a hell-bent world dedicated to war and violence. Make of the shepherd a toy that little boys—or girls—can play with along with GI Joe, or that little girls—or boys—can imagine falling in love with Princess Mary.
For the glory of the Lord shines round about us, Frannie, and we are sore afraid.
The glory comes through moments when old, cranky people get unexpectedly caring treatment from caretakers who cut through their own natural reactions and responses, reaching out to those living in the darkness of Altzheimer’s and the shadow of death. The glory comes in eerie silence following meditation. The glory shines round about those in sweat lodges pent up with fellow human beings for hours in a ritual that moves them beyond the ordinary into deeper connectedness. The glory comes when a little human being learns to share a toy or respect a friend. The glory comes when someone of great power and stature comes before her people and admits making a mistake. The glory shines when people who walked in darkness finally see the light of day, and when a Nelson Mandela walks into freedom, and when people rise up and say no to oppression, and when one by one the dividing walls of hostility come tumbling down. And why should we be afraid? We might fear that we have far too much to lose, especially if we are invested in all the structures that glory eclipses and obliterates. But we also might fear that if we get our hopes too high, or talk too much about the Presence of the Divine here or there, or get a bit too attached to the notion of glory, we’ll all awake some morning to find that it was all a ploy, a fake, a trap, a dream, a chimera, and we’ll be worse off for having let our guard down. We’ll be sorry that we let ourselves believe that there was a Deep Presence in the universe that could put things to rights, when what we have after all is the same-old-same-old. Yes, of that we are sore afraid.
And that fear is perhaps the main thing that keeps the Christ from being born in the first place. It is not that we are such sinful creatures, if by sinful you mean basically animals doing what animals do. It is that our favorite method of survival is to build tight narratives of what is what. And the very nature of the glory of the Lord is to surprise us with—guess what?—the truth that things are not what they seem. All the great promises of the gospel are surprises. Nothing is to be taken for granted.
So, what can we do about all that? I suppose we could decide not to be afraid of glory after all. Just embrace it, figure that paradox is something we can live with, that our rules and regulations and predictable sameness is fairly vapid and uninteresting. Well, deciding not to be afraid of glory is hardly a viable option. It is sort of like deciding not to be afraid of earthquakes. It is all quite fine in theory, especially if an earthquake has never affected you. But that decision is apt to be upended when a real one comes along. But deciding to be open to mystery, especially to this mysterious glory, is an option. Some religious people are credulous and are ready to believe anything. Miracles are just going off like popcorn over heat. Others can't imagine God doing a new thing. Marriage? It has always been thus and so. Equality of the sexes? Not possible because no one in the Bible imagined it. Climate change? Can't be true because God wouldn't allow it, etc. We do not have to live that way. We can learn to live with ambiguity, with paradox. Not everything fits neatly into pre-assigned categories. And not all shock is horrible.
The story the shepherd tells is quite likely a story that would have been impossible to imagine had he and the others simply trembled among themselves and, to quote another Bible passage, told no one in those days anything of what they had seen and heard. But that is not the story. The angel said unto them, “Fear not.” There is an underlying dependability in the universe, a presence that defuses our fear. God is not the enemy. “For behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” There is nothing to be afraid of. The impossibly good thing is that the shepherds in Luke’s story are the first to go to Bethlehem and see this thing, which has come to pass. And that is the way a life with God begins. First you go see a baby, and you get a taste of the glory in the unlikely place of a manger. Then you see the lame walk and the lepers cured and the blind see. Then you see the hungry fed and the prisoners freed and the poor respected. And suddenly you find yourself in the middle of what might seem a magical kingdom where impossible things happen all over the place. Even the dead are raised.
And then you come to understand that the mystery is about you, not about some remote God. The point of it all was that God jumps into the fray on the side of human beings and becomes flesh, like yours, to help flesh, like yours, become God.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2013