Christmas Eve, Dec 24, 2015
St. James Armenian Orthodox Church, Watertown MA.
“…And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord… “
The first words, the very first words announcing the birth of Christ, the very first words of the Angel of the Lord at Christmas, are “Be not afraid.”
Maybe the shepherds were so hungry, that they thought they were seeing things. Maybe the shepherds had been drinking, alone and lonely, and their vision was blurry at first. Maybe the shepherds were so used to being unloved, rejected, left out in the cold, that they could not imagine anything good. Maybe the shepherds were so used to living under Rome’s violent occupation, that the only thing strangers showing up could bring was bad news.
Maybe, the angel says “Be Not Afraid” because we can barely imagine the God of all Creation entering into the joy and mess of humanity.
“Be not afraid,” the angel proclaims.
Be not afraid, if your Christmas isn’t perfect, if your family isn’t perfect, if you aren’t perfect.
Be not afraid, if you are not what you hoped you’d be.
Be not afraid, if your home isn’t clean, if your spirit is smudged and stained.
Be not afraid, if you feel unwelcome, unworthy, unloved.
“Be not afraid,” the angel proclaims.
Be not afraid, because God is with us. These are the two most often repeated phrases of the Bible: “Be not afraid” and “I am with you.”
Be not afraid, because God enters in to our imperfection and our messy stables. Be not afraid, because nothing, nothing, nothing, not even the political and military power of Empire can stop God from entering in.
In the original Greek, Angel speaks a command, Μὴ φοβεῖσθε “No Fear,” sounding more like an ad for sneakers than a Scriptural command. Commanding someone “No Fear” seems about as logical as shouting “stop crying!” to a weeping child. Why on earth does the Angel say “Be Not Afraid?”
Maybe we are told to “Be Not Afraid” because we’ve become afraid of the wrong things. We’ve become afraid listening to the trumped-up fear of politicians looking for votes. We’ve become afraid of strangers, of refugees, of people unlike us. No doubt, this world is a complicated and messy place where bad things do happen. Maybe the angels speaks this word because we’ve become afraid of the wrong things.
Maybe we are told, “Be not afraid” so that we can be released from the fear of things we cannot control.
Each year as we approach Christmas, I try to look at this familiar story from a new perspective. This year, I wonder about the shepherds, the people God decided to first tell the Good News of the holy birth.
The Shepherds were workers with mud on their boots. Not dressed in their Christmas best, but whatever would keep them warm on those lonely nights out in the fields. I bet they smelled. I bet if they sat next to me in Church, I’d try to move a few inches further away. The first Christmas did not smell like an Evergreen Yankee Candle and gingerbread cookies. The first Christmas smelled like wet sheep and sweat.
The shepherds were on the margin, physically outside the city gates. And because they tended animals who needed care all the time, the shepherds worked on the Sabbath, making them ritually impure and outside the established religious institutions.
In ancient days, shepherding was the last job to take when you could find no other work. Shepherds were held in such low regard that their testimony was not considered admissible in courts. These are not gentlemen farmers who cash out their 401k to start an artisanal sheep cheese business in Vermont. These are the desperate, the desolate, the fast food worker or office cleaner making minimum wage. Maybe the shepherds were undocumented immigrants or refugees who had to start over from somewhere else, who took whatever job they could to rebuild a life, like many of your ancestors did fleeing the Armenian Genocide.
God chose to show up first on the margins, not to the fancy city people or the religious elites, but to workers in the fields, to those forgotten and rejected. God shows up to those who have been told so often that they don’t belong that they’ve stopped looking for God. God is invested in the details of particular lives, even in the shepherds, whose names Scripture forgets. This is how far God goes for love. God sends the angels to people who have given up on God. This is our God.
The angel says “Be not afraid, for behold I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people.” Not just some, but all the people. God announced to the shepherds so that we would believe that Christmas is Good News for all people, truly all the people. God wants us so desperately to know that all people are invited to behold the manger.
If God comes first to smelly, rejected, outsiders like the shepherds; maybe God comes to the part of you that feels unlovable, rejected too?
So they go. They go, not to royal courts, but to a manger.
God’s saving work starts small, tender, quiet, in the messy places, among broken people. Angels announce with pomp and pageantry, with trumpets and song, not with military might but a battalion of the heavenly hosts, but God’s saving work starts small and frail. St. John Chrysostom puts it this way, “And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of Days has become an infant. He who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger.” God’s saving work starts as tiny and as vulnerable as an infant in a manger.
Tonight, we sing, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” a song written nearly 150 years ago. The author was Bishop Philip Brooks, an Episcopal priest at Trinity Church in Copley Square, buried not far from here in Mount Auburn Cemetery. Brooks, an abolitionist, wrote this hymn shortly after the US Civil War, our existential battle to determine if our national promise that “all men are created equal” truly applied to all. On Christmas Eve in 1865, Brooks visited the Holy Land, worshipped at the Church of the Nativity, sat in the fields of Beit Sahour, Palestine where the shepherds had watched over their flocks by night. The hymn was written for his Sunday School kids, children who had grown up surrounded by national anxiety and war.
O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie, Above thy deep and dreamless sleep The silent stars go by;
Yet in thy dark streets shineth,
The everlasting light.
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.
We know that dark street. Isaiah prophesies, “the people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light.” The shepherds knew the darkness of the starless skies, the darkness of being cast out.
We know vulnerability, we know chaos, we know fear of the wrong things. We know the long darkness of grief that never seems to lift, the long darkness of disease in our bones that never seems to heal, the long darkness of war that finished on the battlefield but keep living on in your mind, the long darkness of anxiety that chains you to the bed. But God shows up in our long darkness and lights the way to the manger.
Somewhere this Christmas, find that place where your hopes and fears are met. Find that stillness to sit with awe at a God who enters in to our humanness as vulnerable and fragile as a newborn child. Maybe you’ll find it as we light the candles and sing O Holy Night. Maybe you’ll find it in the hush of children sleeping, houses that are finally still. Maybe you’ll find it in the grey sky of Christmas Eve that seems to be the same color every year. Maybe you’ll find it in that moment just as you sit for a meal, surrounded by loved ones. Maybe you’ll find it alone, in the consolation of God with us. We know the tender stillness, those moments when “All is calm, all is bright,” when the long darkness has been pushed back, even just a bit. But somewhere, sometime this Christmas let yourself, your imperfect, messy human self that God loves, fall to you knees and behold this Good News.
In the stable of your heart, clear a little space, make a little room, tuck a little hay into the feed trough and place a pillow for the baby’s head. May the new life of Christ Jesus be born in us today. My sisters and brothers, Merry Christmas. Amen.
Images taken from the 1931 book (which I found at a thrift store and fell in love!)