Yes: the shepherds were scared. After all, they were minding their own business, going about the daily round, “keeping watch over their flock by night” (Lk. 2:8), when suddenly an angel appeared to them and they were surrounded by the glory of the Lord. They were scared; scared enough, in fact, for the angel to notice. “Fear not!” (Lk. 2:10), he tells them: for the message the angel brings is good news of great joy for all the people. The shepherds then go on to Bethlehem, and return “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen” (Lk. 2:20). But yes, the shepherds were scared.
These are anxious times. People are apprehensive, in the face of uncertainty; an anxiety that can become unmoored from reality and take up residence within us, to terrible effect. The remedy for that anxiety is prayer, turning the matter over to God; and God knows we have more than enough to pray for these days. Prayer is a reminder of the truth: that God is trustworthy, and powerful to save. As Isaiah prophesied, “Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear… Here is your God… He will come and save you’” (Is. 35:4).
But let’s be clear: when it says in the Gospel that the shepherds were scared, it’s not telling us that they were anxious. Maybe they were, but that’s not the point. What they felt when confronted by the angel was not like the fear they felt about the latest Roman tax, with its uncertain effect on their lives; or about the Roman occupation, with its inherent instability. When the shepherds saw the angel, and the glory of the Lord, they weren’t scared in the way someone might be in the face of the uncertainty of life, which was pretty dicey anyway for shepherds, living on the margins of society.
No, the sheer terror of the shepherds was of another kind entirely from the fear we know. They were faced, not with uncertainty about known threats, about things that can be quantified and calculated. They were frightened, terrified, in the face of the unknown itself.
That evening, the shepherds stood on the edge of the unimaginable, in the presence of the Lord God of hosts. What they encountered in the darkness was something greater than themselves: unlimited power and beauty itself; separated from them not by several orders of magnitude, but of a different order altogether. The shepherds could not calculate or assess their situation, as anxious people do, weighing what they know and don’t know. They could not chart a course or take a fix on their position in the universe. Anxiety could not find a handhold because what they were experiencing was simply beyond mortal understanding.
Though it’s described as fear, something we recoil from, what the shepherds experienced that night was crucial to the journey back to God. Here, in deepest darkness, they and we glimpse a reality that lies beyond the established truths of life, or even the anxiety provoking possibilities that we can imagine. If the reality revealed at Christmas seems obscure, lacking the hard edge of scientific certainty, then therein lies its power, both for the shepherds and for us.
Edmund Burke pointed out, years ago, that “a clear idea is… another name for a little idea” (A Philosophical Enquiry). To the extent that we seek something clear at Christmas, or obtain something that we can grasp, we reduce it to the merely manageable. Here’s a truth: God cannot be managed. When it comes to the Creator of all things, no small, shopworn ideas will do, because God knows no boundaries that can be clearly delineated, and placed comfortably into our box.
Tonight, unlimited power and beauty takes up its dwelling place in our midst; chooses to accept the limitations of human life; deigns to be defined as a particular person in a particular place and time. In this process of definition, the Son of God has himself become the definition of what it means to be truly human. Jesus Christ is vulnerable, faithful, steadfast; compassionate, eager, loving; quick to the mark, and swift in the race. In him, what was unimaginable became real, in a human person, as the true reality broke into the world.
Tonight, we stand with the shepherds, on the edge of the unimaginable. The shepherds were scared, and we should be too, because we do not know where this journey will take us. As we look deep into the darkness, where God is, we hear the voice of the angel, “Fear not!” (Lk. 2:10). “Darkness is not dark to you, O Lord, the night is as bright as the day;” the psalmist prayed. “Darkness and light to you are both alike” (Ps. 139:11). The birth of Jesus Christ reveals new possibilities for us: life out of death, through the glory of his resurrection. In this darkness, we cannot chart a course or take a fix on our position, because we are being caught up in a reality that transcends our own. What was unimaginable before is possible now, in the human life we see revealed in Jesus Christ.