“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.”