The Catholic Thing
They Were Sore Afraid Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Wednesday, 18 December 2013

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“Is there anybody here,” cries the disconsolate Charlie Brown, “who can tell me the true meaning of Christmas?”

“Sure, Charlie Brown,” says Linus.  He’s a child theologian, despite the blanket. “I can tell you the true meaning of Christmas.”  Then, on a darkened stage, with one light shining upon him, he who can never memorize his two or three lines for a Christmas pageant repeats, word for word, these verses from the King James Bible: 

     And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
     And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
     For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. 
 And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, 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, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
“And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown,” says Linus.

Yes, I know it is only a cartoon, but the boy who can do nothing right, who is mocked and laughed at by everybody, even his fellow boys, even his own dog, cries out from his anguish and his loneliness. It is night. For sinful man, it is always twilight, or night, or the hard metallic light and noise of his frantic attempts to keep the night away.

Why do we suppose we would be content to behold the glory of the Lord? The shepherds were not content. Their quiet and orderly night was shattered. They feared with a great fear, says Saint Luke, who was fluent in Greek, but who there was using a Semitic turn of phrase, as if he were translating something that a still-thunderstruck speaker of Aramaic had reported to him. 

“They were filled with fear,” says the Revised Standard Version, editing out the doublet. The King James translators, usually most careful to preserve the sound and the color of the original, here stretch for a phrase, anything, that will convey not only the degree of fear but the kind of fear. So they uncharacteristically turn a verb into its adjective, and add a rare modifier: They were sore afraid.

         The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds by Thomas Cole, 1833

The shepherds aren’t the first in the Gospel to fear. Zechariah was troubled with fear when the angel Gabriel appeared to him to bring him the glad tidings of a son, John, who would be favored by the Lord. Mary was troubled with fear when Gabriel appeared to her to bring her the glad tidings of a son, Jesus, who would be called holy, the very Son of God. 

Now these ordinary men, in the middle of an ordinary task in a hard life, either awake under the night sky or sleeping huddled against the cold, hear tidings meant for all mankind, and they too are troubled. It is as if the first encounter with the glory of God brings pain – the sore first feeble attempt of sinful and finite man to invite into his hovel the holy and omnipotent God.

I have heard it said that the word sore in the old version was a mere intensifier, like its German cousin sehr, very. But that is not so; in Old English, sar meant sore, both the wound and the pain, and it gained its adverbial force from that fundamental signification; someone who is sorely needed is not simply greatly needed; they who need him are aching from the need. And who ever was and is and shall be more sorely needed than Jesus?

The shepherds, then, were indeed sore afraid: as any person with the least reverence must be. When Isaiah beheld the angels ministering about the altar of God, he cried out that he must die, because no one can look upon the Holy One and live. 

Mary would look upon the face of the child Jesus, knowing in a way that she could hardly have explained that she was looking upon divinity. Her fear came before the moment of conception, when she first encountered the angel. Our fear, the sore fear of mankind, comes after, when we hear the tidings that shake the world. 

We Catholics hold as dogma that Mary did not suffer pain in childbirth. We are the ones who must labor to admit Him, and then, with the help of our Mother of Sorrows, to await His consummate coming, for a woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come; but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world.

Yet we are not to be paralyzed by the fear. Far from it: the fear is sore, the fear brings feeling back into numb limbs, it rushes blood into stony hearts, it forces open the eyes and the ears. 

It leads the shepherds first to Bethlehem and then to all the surrounding country, praising God. It leads the apostles to go forth to all nations, to give witness to the only new thing that has ever happened in this old world; it leads them to the ax and the Cross.  It is the fearful first light of joy. 

“In the world ye shall have tribulation,” says Jesus on the night before His death, “but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”

Anthony Esolen
is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are
Reflections on the Christian Life: How Our Story Is God’s Story and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College. 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (11)Add Comment
written by Jack,CT, December 18, 2013
Great piece,enjoyed very much!
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, December 18, 2013
We find the fear again at the Resurrection - But they going out, fled from the sepulchre. For a trembling and fear had seized them: and they said nothing to any man; for they were afraid.[Mark 16:8]
written by debby, December 18, 2013
dear Prof.,
How Providential! i was just speaking to my son this AM about our Lady not having pain in childbirth; he heard a new mom on a Catholic radio program erroneously "imagining the pain Mary went through AND IN A STABLE! with Joseph there helping her deliver since she would not have had an OB or midwife..." Can you help me show him where the Church teaches this Dogma? I cannot find a reliable source that quotes the actual Dogma, only Catholic Answers type of websites that give their opinion.
Also, I am wondering if the original language of the Gospel has only one word for "fear". Is the fear that Mary exhibits at the sight of Gabriel the same word used elsewhere? I am thinking of the word fear in 1 Peter 5:7 - "Perfect love casts out fear." Can you (or anyone else) tell me? I am wondering because believing that Mary was conceived without original sin, it would seem that she would not be subject to the same plethora of fears the rest of us with darkened intellect and rebellious natures suffer. A human anxiety or "surprise" that could be considered a type of fear at seeing an other-worldly being is reasonable, but would she have had the same kind (in tone) of fear that Isaiah, Gideon, Zachariah and others visited by angels had?
Lastly, just this AM (busy morning!) a friend mentioned to me that she heard yesterday that the three evil spirits opposed to the Theological Virtues of Faith, Hope and Love are Confusion, Temptation and Fear. Confusion counters Faith - with my reason I am trying to know what is above my ability; Temptation vs Theological Hope - I need to solve and fix "it" myself rather than Hope in God; Fear vs Love - well, that is pretty obvious!
So many of your lines here are memorable and ponder-able. Will be sharing with others and saving for myself.

written by Chris in Maryland, December 18, 2013
Dear Mr. Esolen:

Thank you for the gift of this essay. I especially love the end - connecting the courageous words of Our Lord before his death - to the hope we cling to this Advent. It makes me mindful of the painful beauty of the carol - "I Wonder as I Wander" - "how Jesus our savior did come for to die?"

Come Lord - keep on coming - to all of us...
written by Seanachie, December 18, 2013
I join Debby's request (above)re dogmatic citation for the statement "We Catholics hold as dogma that Mary did not suffer pain in childbirth." Have never heard this explanation before but must admit I have never previously considered it. Look forward to your reply...thank you.
written by diaperman, December 18, 2013
It isn't a dogma. It's a pious tradition--along side the Franciscan belief that Mary did not die (since death is also a result of original sin and thus--the argument goes--as one immaculately conceived it had no hold over her.) The CCC does not mention this, but stops at saying that Mary's giving birth did not diminish her virginal integrity.

One can believe that Mary had no labor pains but it is hardly a dogma
written by John A. Dempsey, December 18, 2013
Professor Esolen is often very sloppy with details. It is a consequence of his wearing too many hats: theologian, liturgist, political scientist, historian, child psychologist et cetera.
written by ken tremendous, December 18, 2013
Don't forget Bible scholar, economist, and expert commenter on Catholic social teachings, John!

actually, I shouldn't pick on him. This was a pretty good piece.
written by debby, December 19, 2013
p.s. in response to some of the above comments: I did not mean by my question any disrespect by any measure. I can find many references to this topic but not Authoritative Church Teaching. I thought for sure MANFRED would know this one off the top of his head! He is always so quick with traditional teaching references...where are you when I need you, Manfred? ;)Maybe Louise knows? I believe IT MAKES PERFECT SENSE for several reasons that she would not have had a bloody, painful, purely natural birth since God chose her to conceive without purely natural means (certainly, her cousin Elizabeth conceived an extra-ordinary prophet in a miraculous-yet-human way, Samuel, Samson, Issac were all Heavenly Intervention conceptions but not themselves both Divine And Human Persons....). If Jesus walked through walls and ROSE FROM THE DEAD and NEVER CEASED TO BE GOD my faith has no problem with Joseph standing guard outside the cave/stable/place while the Savior was "born". To believe this is not the least bit difficult - heck, it is harder for me to fully accept the Fact that God LOVES me as I am - a poor sinner, and Scriptures abound to tell me so. I know me; I keep trying to earn His love rather than humbly accept His Love. Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!
Please just site a source.
p.s. 2 - Wow! to John Dempsey.....i hope you are sparse and exact in all your words by which you will be judged since you hold such a rigid rule. Glad i don't sit at your table. Prof Esolen (and all TCT people)are MOST WELCOME at mine. (if, he has time to eat, that is. and i have such a small house that we have no hat rack - you just have to be yourself over here and bring your generosity in, holding judgement at the door.)
written by Chris in Maryland, December 19, 2013
Per the uncivil and unintelligent comments from John D and Ken T:

A highly educated Catholic, like Mr. Esolen, is competent to address any topic germane to an educated man: theology, liturgy, politics, history and psychology, among others.

That's what an education in the "liberal arts" avails the educated man or woman.

That's why Magnificat hired Mr. Esolen to prepare guidance on the 2012 correction of the ICEL Novus Ordo Mass. That's why publishers paid him to translate The Divine Comedy. That's why Providence College hired him to teach literature. And that's why Yale U. admitted him at Yale.

You are wrong to assert that another man is incompetent to address these topics - even though you obviously feel incompetent to address these yourself.

Further, you might perhaps consider declaring your own limited limited range of competency, and thereby restrict your production of incompetent comments.
written by Schroeder, December 19, 2013
John Dempsey and "Ken Tremendous" - what is your super power, Ken? - miss the mark in their criticisms. The most egregious failing of this piece comes right at the outset with Dr. Esolen's misquoting of Charlie Brown and Linus. The phrase they use is actually "what Christmas is all about," not "the true meaning of Christmas." This mistake utterly spoils the gorgeous and sublime meditation that follows. How can I trust one of the most intelligent and cultured men of letters in America to weigh in on any subject if he can't get this right?

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