“Be not afraid!”Katerina K. Whitley Luke 2: 1-14. Year A – Nativity of the Lord
The Day we have anticipated during the 30 days of Advent has arrived, as it has done for more than two thousand years. Christmas Day, the birthday of Jesus of Nazareth who will be called the Christ of God. We count the years as two thousand and sixteen, but it took at least four centuries for this to become a Holy Day and, in our times, to surpass even the day of Easter, the most significant day in Christian history.
The people closest to the historic event would be astounded to learn that we are still celebrating that humble birth in Bethlehem and shocked beyond words, beyond all knowing, if they saw the elaborate decorations, the riotous parties, the worship of material things—the idolatry of the whole thing called Christmas holidays.
By the time the day arrives, most people in America are done with it. Many even throw the Christmas tree out the door on that same day. What mattered to them was the preliminary show captured in that uniquely American question, “Are you ready for Christmas?” by which they mean: Have you done your shopping? When I am asked that question I answer: I am always ready for Christmas.
It was a very strange experience to come to America decades ago, before television, travel, and instant communication made every American custom beloved and grasped and imitated around the world—a strange experience to observe how Christmas was celebrated in the states.
Until my first year here in the states, Advent and Christmas for me meant the exquisite Christmas carols I had learned in my American college in Greece. How I loved those hymns, the haunting melodies, the simple yet profound words. They transported me to another realm, one I never wanted to leave and one I have seldom since experienced.
Surrounded by artificial lights, by so many presents wrapped so elaborately, and those precious carols played and sung ad infinitum as piped music, I withdrew into my world of imagination and that gave me the gift I always welcome.
Imagine with me now a dark night on the hills of Jerusalem and on nearby Bethlehem. The poor hovels of the town are quiet, for there is no light anywhere after dark falls at a time without electricity, in a place where oil and candle wax cost money they lack. The people have long ago fallen asleep. The dark and quiet are total, broken occasionally by the sounds of animals who are sleeping close to the homes of their owners.
In this specific place, on a night we cannot date with accuracy, a few of those animals hear the moan of a new mother and then the sad cry of a baby who enters a hostile world. Nobody seems to care, except for the young woman’s husband who alone and probably terrified assists in the birth.
On the dark hills, a few shepherds awaken and move on the rocky ground murmuring among themselves: “Why are the beasts so restless tonight?” They sense their movement but they cannot see them.
In that total darkness, the silvery light of an apparition takes shape and, because they cannot recognize it as human, they know it’s an angel. And now this being speaks in sounds they understand as they tremble with awe. “Do not be afraid,” the angel says to them, and immediately a great calm falls upon them and even the flocks are silent, as if listening.
“Be not afraid. I have good news for you. I bring you joy.
Goodness and love are being showered on you tonight.
A savior is born for you and for all the people. Be not afraid.”
They are the poorest of the poor, forced to live on the barren hills, away from their homes, keeping awake by turns in order to guard the sheep; they are smelly and tired, and this Being is speaking of good news and joy. Open-mouthed, they wait.
The messenger becomes specific, giving them directions in how to find the fulfillment of this promise in a real human baby. “He is lying in a manger, wrapped in strips of clothing.” The shepherds are still dumbfounded, but they have taken all the words in; they haven’t quite understood them yet. And then the heavens explode all around them. The sky above them is now crowded with these beings of light and their song has a meaning: Glory to God, peace to you, and to all who have goodness in their hearts.
And just as suddenly, it is quiet again, they have been left alone as before, but the light lingers and the shepherds themselves have been changed. They have accepted the good news and they will act upon it. Later, when they see their families, they will ask: “Did you see the angels? Did you hear their song?”
And they will be met with disbelief. Their children will say, “Dad has lost it. He has been alone on the hills for too long.” And their wives will shake the head and murmur: “What good news are you talking about? Has anything changed? I need to put food on the table for these children. Stop living with your head in the clouds.”
The shepherds will doubt their own words after a while. But then they will remember a visit to a stable, a young, exhausted but radiant mother, a father who listened as they babbled about angels, nodding his head in understanding, and then a tiny baby wrapped in swaddling cloths will utter a cry to be fed.
The peace that enveloped them as they looked at the sleeping child, the peace that followed them as they remembered the lighted apparitions who were singing all around them up on the hills will not depart from them. Back on their hills, they will ask each other: “Why did they choose us? What does it all mean?” But they are not people who analyze meaning. They are the ones who hold all this, as Mary does, like a treasure in their hearts and minds.
And if one or two live long enough, they will come across an itinerant preacher and healer years later, and when they hear him speak of God as a loving father they will say, “I wonder if he is the one the angels told us about that night in Bethlehem; the savior who is God’s anointed?”
A great peace will fall upon them and they will stop being afraid.
About the author:
Katerina Katsarka Whitley was born in Thessaloniki, Greece to an evangelical family. She arrived in the United States at age 16 and studied to Mars Hill College. She received her BA in English at Furman University and then attended Southeastern Theological Seminary but furthered her scriptural education in countless workshops and conferences and intensive personal studies. As an Episcopalian and a communicator she edited a diocesan paper and then, while working in New York, she founded and edited a national newsletter to promote relief and development in the Anglican Communion.
She spent many years teaching and then devoted herself to writing. She is the author of Speaking for Ourselves; Seeing for Ourselves; Walking the Way of Sorrows; and two Advent books: Waiting for the Wonder; and Light to the Darkness, all published by Morehouse. She is also the author of Around a Greek Table, Recipes and Stories (Globe-Pequot/Lyons Press) and A New Love, a novel of the first century (Material Media). She lives in Boone, NC and is a lecturer and retreat leader. She welcomes your contact: www.katerinawhitley.net
Scripture and Music:
Luke 2:1-14 (15-20).
Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus
Angels from the Realms of Glory
O Come, O Come Emmanuel
O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright
Angels We Have Heard on High
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
It Came Upon the Midnight Clear
O Little Town of Bethlehem
The First Noel
I Was Glad (Hubert Parry)
They Shall Know Him When He Comes (Hal Hopson)
Let Our Gladness Know No End (Herman Schroeder)
There’s A Song in the Air (Lloyd Larson)
Noel Nouvelet (arr. Richard Zgodava)
O Holy Night
Mary, Did You Know
Then Shall the Righteous Shine Forth (Mendelssohn)
I Wonder as I Wander