Years ago, when the comet Hale Bop made its appearance in our night skies, it happened that I was spending time outside at night with my sheep. The ewes were lambing and my frequent late-night trips to the barn gave me the opportunity to look up at the stars and see the comet blazing across the sky. One particularly clear night, I took my camera away from the lights of the farm yard and took pictures of Hale Bop over my home. The night was still and dark and the view of the comet was awesome. Through the viewfinder of my camera I saw my farmyard bathed in the blue light of the yard light. The warm yellow light lit the windows of the house and and poured out of the open door of the barn. The comet and it’s tail streamed overhead. I excitedly snapped away using every possible exposure just to be sure at least one would be just right. It turned out to be one of the best photos I have ever taken.
I can also imagine how terrified I would have been by the appearance of an angel as I stood alone in the dark wondering about that extra bright star in the night sky.
Shepherds, in biblical times, herded their sheep into an enclosure for safe keeping when they were grazing close to home. During part of the year when those nearby pastures were eaten down, however, the sheep were herded to pastures further away and the shepherds stayed with the sheep all night to protect them from predators and thieves. It was not a glamorous job, nor one with any prestige. It was hard work. Shepherds were rarely the people who owned the sheep. Because they lived with the sheep, they may not have been particularly clean. Certainly, they were people without power or material wealth. They may have been uneducated and superstitious. They possibly preferred to be away from the rest of society and others were probably equally glad not to have contact with them.
It would not be surprising that they would react with fear at the sight of an angel. The shepherds had a lot of things to fear. If they were smart, they would have a healthy fear of predatory animals and thieves who might try to take the sheep. Probably equally frightening might be the wrath of their boss if any of sheep were eaten or stolen. The shepherds herded sheep over all kinds of ground–across rocks, through streams, up mountain sides. A fall could be fatal. A serious injury which made shepherding impossible might have meant begging for a living. The country was ruled by the Roman Empire and the murderous puppet king, Herod. People as lowly as shepherds could feel little security under a ruler who would kill even his own family in order to maintain his rule.
But, the angel said, “Don’t be afraid.”
Life is still full of fearful things. In twenty-first century America, we fret about our health and the illnesses caused by our modern lifestyle–diabetes, obesity, heart disease and cancer. We worry that we won’t have enough money to pay our bills. We are afraid of having our possessions and our identities stolen. We are afraid we won’t be promoted and are suspicious of our coworkers.
We worry about terrorists planning attacks against us. We fear immigrants, legal and illegal, coming into our country and somehow taking away from our economic well-being. We fear other countries’ ability to use nuclear weapons. We worry about global warming and natural disasters.
Fear is a powerful thing. Fear of ridicule or of not fitting in is used to sell us the latest fashions. Fear of being without can make us miserly and greedy. Fear of those who are different from ourselves creates prejudice. Fear can create anger, distrust, suspicion and hate. It can stop us from speaking up when we know something is wrong. It can make us look the other way when others are hurting. Fear can paralyze us. Fear can make us do all kinds of things we would rather not do and keep us from doing the things we would like to do.
The shepherds, in spite of having many things to fear, heard the angel’s message. They didn’t cower on the ground, unable to act. They didn’t fear that others would think they had been drinking or that they were crazy. They didn’t worry about losing their jobs. They went to Bethlehem and saw the baby and went away unafraid, telling the story to everyone they met along the way. Some probably laughed at them and the tale they told. The night was still full of animals wanting to eat the sheep and thieves ready to steal them. The angel didn’t say, after all, that others would no longer make fun of them or try to hurt them. He only said that without fear, those things would have no power.
The gift of Christmas seems to me to be wrapped up in the message of the angel, “Don’t be afraid.” Without fear, the world can be a different place–a place where peace is possible.