Sadly enough, there was no Merry Christmas, no Happy Holidays and Happy New Year greeting offered on the first Christmas morning; just a gentle and matter of fact word from the angel not to be afraid. I've spent the last few days thinking about this, about why this command shows up here but is also so prominent in our nativity story - it's the angel of the Lord's favorite intro. It's an interesting word, right? Do not be afraid. And it seems like an apt one for the angels to tell these shepherds. I mean it's not everyday that God's angelic entourage shows up at the office, and I suspect that if something marvelous like this did happen all of us would be sufficiently spooked. But I wonder if there is something else going on with their command. I wonder if they realize that the shepherds, just like all of us, need their fears allayed before they are ready to hear the news of God showing up.
After all, in our day there is no shortage of fear that enshrouds this notion of God and religion. We live in a society that is fraught with fear, is nervous about the influence of religion in the world, in the public sphere: Conservatives are nervous about Christ being taken out of Christmas, and the Liberals are nervous about their right to define God however they so choose. But I suppose the nervousness about God is even more fundamental: for if God does show up, (and I mean much more than making a casual appearance on a Christmas bumper sticker) and if religion gains any more footing, will it continue to occasion one groups power play over and against another? Will it continue to factionalize and irritate communal differences to the point of violence? Will it downplay and possibly even obliterate the history of one people at the expense of another? Is God's favor partial to one nationality, or race, or culture? Is God a liberal, or is he conservative? Understandable questions, I presume. And questions that I take to presuppose no small amount of fear. And yet I don't think these questions are merely the concern of us enlightened 21st century folk. I can't help but wonder if those shepherds - those philosophizing shepherds - had similar questions that first Christmas morning.
Do not fear, the angel tells them, tells us.
God is showing up we are told, but God is not coming in the way we might think. He is not coming as a hostile force, or as an some kind of apocalyptically enraged rule keeper. God is not showing up partial to one group over and against another. The angels tell us today that God is far more creative, and far more creatively compassionate than that. Indeed, if you want to know what God showing up looks like you are going to have to go look at a baby, THE baby: "this will be a sign for you, (the angel says) you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." And thus, God's power is more like the tenderness of that child than anything else we can imagine. As one poem captures it: "his battering shots are babish cries, his arrows looks of weeping eyes."
Do not fear, we are being told, for God is being born in our midst, working in us and among us to bring joy and freedom and love to our histories, not at the expense of others, but in fraternity and fellowship with them. Not coming from without in power, but from within in weakness; not coming from without to affirm one group's story over and against all those other "moral failures" "or sexually confused" or "mentally unstable" or fill in the blank, but instead he is being born in our midst to redeem and recreate all of our stories, infusing them with a surplus of meaning and love. Do not fear, instead: Rejoice! Today is a wonderful day indeed. God is showing up, God is being born as a child, that we all might recognize, with the shepherds, that we are being called to live into the joy and freedom of knowing ourselves as children of the Most High. "Glory to God in Highest" and peace to you all this day. Amen.