30 Dec Et dixit illis Angelus
But the angel said to them, Do not be afraid; behold, I bring you good news of a great rejoicing for the whole people. This day, in the city of David, a Saviour has been born for you, the Lord Christ himself.
The first preacher of the gospel was an angel. “Evangelizo vobis gaudium magnum,” was his message: “I bring you good news of a great rejoicing.” Before the angel could deliver his news, however, prior preparation was necessary. “Nolite timere,” he charges the shepherds: “Do not be afraid.” Words which are scarcely calculated to put the shepherds at their ease. Unless—as is likely—their terror was manifest, even from the first moment of their angelic encounter. They fear, and yet the angel enjoins them, “Do not be afraid.”
Why should the shepherds fear? Why does the angel counsel, “Do not be afraid,” before evangelizing them? The angel brings a message from deep heaven, from the courts of the Almighty One, in whose awesome presence the six-winged Seraphim cover their faces. The angel brings a message from the Thrice-Holy—and more than a message. He heralds the imminent arrival of the Saviour, Lord Christ himself. The terrible and wonderful presence of the Messenger is the merest foretaste of the advent of his Sovereign King. Is it only shepherds who would tremble at the prospect?
Well might we fear to receive this angelic message! We who are used to preening and presenting ourselves, guardedly masking our inadequacies. We who do not scruple to don any cloak the dark shadows of this world afford, thereby to evade detection. We who sometimes are even appalled by our own cowardice and self-indulgence. We who nonetheless have convinced ourselves that we seek the good, indeed that we are good—mostly. Suppose we were soon to face the very source of all light, the Good in Person. How, then, should we fare? Would the news that he is coming be good news, without the encouragement, “Do not be afraid”?
“Do not be afraid. Nolite timere.” We marvel at the brevity of the angel’s strengthening words. The angel does not assure the shepherds that they are sinless (or that they could not have done better under the circumstances). He does not tell them that they are the equals of any man, nor that it is only right that the Most High should pay them the respect of a visit. He does not soothe their apprehension with smooth words that, after all, they are just being timid and silly. He does not say they have no reason to be afraid. It does not take an angel to invent such false counsel. No, the angel simply commands, “Do not be afraid.” Cast out all fear. Hopefully, the shepherds will discover that this is not an impossible command.
Before pondering the content of the angel’s pronouncement, we pause to consider its form. We have been talking about shepherds seeing angels in the fields. And we have hypothetically taken the angelic message delivered on that occasion seriously enough to imagine ourselves as its possible recipients. But the arrival of angelic messengers is not, you will grant, an ordinary occurrence. So we have scarcely any inkling of the marvel that the evangelist, St Luke, wishes to convey. Fortunately, tradition is not without resources to aid our comprehension.
There are two ways of evacuating the wonder from St Luke’s text: one, to patronize this scriptural account as the crude imaginary tale of a pre-scientific mentality; the other, naively to reduce the spiritual event this text records to a dull matter of fact, as if an angelic encounter could be attested to be real only when violently cast into an anachronistic materialising framework. Hoping to evade these two extremes, we ask: What is it like for an angel to speak to a man?
Pope Benedict, in his beautiful book, The Infancy Narratives, made a suggestive remark: “Christianity has always understood that the speech of angels is actually song, in which all the glory of the great joy that they proclaim becomes tangibly present.” According to this tradition, the shepherds heard in spirit a supernal chant which bodied forth its promised joy.
But if the music of angelic speech has the power to present the glory of joy, what shall we say about the fear with which the angelic song begins? Music also has the power to unsettle us, to pierce the murky depths of our souls. An eerie chord shatters the nocturnal silence and evokes alarm. Renaissance polyphony and, even more blatantly, contemporary music make strategic use of dissonance, an ill-sounding tension or clash which results from the combination of disharmonious notes. Glancingly or gradually, the dissonance may dissolve, taking with it inharmonious passions harboured within our breasts. Indeed, by neglecting to address the negativity and disorder of our experience even an angel might risk manufacture of a trite and saccharine jingle rather than an adequate prelude to the gospel.
And so we arrive at the heart of the angel’s gospel: joy. The birth of our Saviour, the Lord Christ, is the medicine that begets great joy. From the dissonance of fear and unworthiness we attain to the joy of reconciliation achieved. This is a joy that cannot be produced simply by re-arranging the elements of our broken lives. For great joy comes from beyond our fallen world. The sign of this joy, according to the angel, will be a defenceless infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, placed in a manger. This Divine Child will be present among us. He will die, even as he was born, immobilized on the wood of a tree, and wrapped in a shroud of linen. This is God among us. Contemplating the form of this little child, we might even fear for him, rather than for ourselves.
But the joy that is promised: what of the joy? Suddenly the angel who brought glad tidings is joined with a multitudinous heavenly army. They, too, sing in chorus, and the burden of their message is the fullness of joy. “Glory to God in high heaven”: for now God reunites himself with the creatures from whom he had been estranged, reunites himself with the humanity which headed up the earthly rebellion against him. “And peace on earth”: for now the quarrelling nations of man have been reunited with their common Father and so their violent divisions are, in principle, healed. “To men of good will”: for now the conflict within our sham “selves,” founded on ignorance of who we really are, has been composed. Personal integrity is restored, along with the likeness of God in our souls.
A brief coda. If it be so that, preliminary to hearing the evangelium, we must allow God to cast out fear, and that the Good News of healing and salvation brings great joy, in what manner can this joy be received? The Christmas angels do not seem to have incorporated the answer to this question into their song, but Scripture is not obscure. St Paul in his writings fittingly rings changes on a single cry, “Thanks be to God for his unutterable bounty to us.” Joy, if it is not to be false, forced, or syrupy, must be correlated to thanksgiving, what Chesterton calls “the idea of taking things with gratitude, and not taking things for granted.”
Gratitude is essential. No more than man is God pleased with querulous complaint. As the German classicist, Theodor Haecker, remarked, “Joy untouched by thankfulness is always suspect.” Listen, then, to the wise instruction of Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Only he who gives thanks for little things receives the big things. We prevent God from giving us the great spiritual gifts He has in store for us, because we do not give thanks for daily gifts. We think we dare not be satisfied with the small measure of spiritual knowledge, experience, and love that has been given to us, and that we must constantly be looking forward eagerly for the highest good. Then we deplore the fact that we lack the deep certainty, the strong faith, and the rich experience that God has given to others, and we consider this lament to be pious. We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the ordinary, small (and yet really not small) gifts. How can God entrust great things to one who will not thankfully receive from Him the little things?”
Gratitude, even for the least and littlest of things: is not this what the infant God in his crib adds to the angels’ song tonight?
By Fr Derek Cross, Cong. Orat.