Matt Dickerson: Of bears and sheep and fear and love … and Christmas
“Do not be afraid.”
That’s what the angels said on that first Christmas night, when they paid a visit to a bunch of shepherds out in the fields keeping watch over their flocks.
Not in English, of course. Neither the King James “Fear not,” nor the more modern “Do not be afraid.” The angels were presumably speaking Aramaic — the language spoken and understood by first century Jewish shepherds. Still, what a thing to say!
Consider the situation. A small group of shepherds out on a quiet hillside pasture, minding their own business. Or, rather, minding someone else’s business. Shepherds in those days were not the owners of the sheep. They were hired laborers. Perhaps for reasons of safety, or maybe just for the company, or maybe both, there seem to have been several of them gathered in one place that first Christmas night. Maybe it was their regular evening rendezvous. I imagine there was very little light pollution in those days. It would have been a dark night as well as a silent one.
And then all of that darkness and quiet explodes with noise and light! The shepherds were definitely not expecting a heavenly host to suddenly brighten up the night sky, or some shining angel to start speaking to them, or an original angelic Hallelujah Chorus.
Yes, indeed. Luke the physician-historian tells us that suddenly the glory of the Lord shone around the shepherds. And they were terrified. As I would be too. Their fear was a reasonable response. The words of the angels might have been intended to comfort them, but I doubt their fear would have suddenly gone away. I can imagine standing in an Alaskan river and having several grizzlies walk down to the shore and wade out toward me. I’d be shaking. Having the person beside me say, “Don’t be afraid!” would not make my fear vanish, even if it were an experienced fishing guide speaking. And if it were one of the grizzlies who told me “Fear not”? Well, I think that might bring the fear to a whole new level.
So I’ve been thinking about fear. Of course fear is not a bad thing, in and of itself. It can be an important motivator. A healthy dose of fear would have me backing away at the first sight of those bears, and not trying to lay claim to my prime fishing territory. Fear can keep me from doing a lot of things I shouldn’t be doing.
But is fear really the best and healthiest motivator?
I’ve read that much of the voting in the previous election — voting on all sides of the political spectrum — was motivated by fear. The media was full of messages of fear. If we elect the wrong person, the world will come to an end. Everything we love and hold dear will be destroyed. Life as we know it will come crashing down. Those bears that waded out into the river? They’re going to take my salmon from me, and it isn’t going to be a pleasant scene. The phrase “fear mongering” has now entered into our vocabulary. And when I hear the phrase, I have some clear images of just what it means.
As a lover of wild places, and wild creatures, I admit I’ve been a bit fearful myself since the election. One aspect of the platform of the incoming president’s party is selling off public lands, getting rid of federal oversight and protection of some important wild places, opening up the lands to more exploitation of “resources.” That does fill me with fear. I’ve seen how quickly wild places can be destroyed. I’ve also seen how much more difficult it is to restore wild places and wild creatures once they are lost. Indeed, in many cases it is impossible, or nearly so. A creature — or a species of grass or tree — that goes extinct when it’s habitat is destroyed can never be recovered. I want to oppose this policy.
And I think back to the shepherds. I wonder if that hard-to-obey message of the angel that night had an even broader meaning applicable beyond the present moment. Maybe they weren’t merely saying, “Don’t be afraid of us angels, right now, at this moment.” Maybe they were saying something bigger: “Don’t be afraid in general. Don’t live your lives in fear. Don’t give in to the fear mongering.”
That might have been an even more difficult message for those shepherds. I mentioned above that first-century shepherds in Palestine were not landowners. In fact, they were about the least-privileged, least-respected members of their society. They were despised. They not only had no land; they had no rights. They could not even legally testify in a court of law. In that way, they probably had a lot in common with undocumented immigrants in our country today. Or with immigrant agricultural laborers who do the difficult work that many citizens don’t want to do.
The shepherds had a lot to be afraid of. Not just wild animals or robbers that might come and steal their sheep, but the elite and privileged members of the society they were dependent upon, not to mention the oppressive forces of the Roman army that occupied their country in those days. Perhaps the greatest fear of many of them was simply not knowing where their next meal would come from.
“Don’t be afraid,” the angels told them. “You may be the outcast and despised, the powerless and rights-less members of your society, but you have been chosen for the honor of being the first recipients of a very important birth announcement. And not only that, you are invited to a celebration with the new king. You are now part of a great story — not as outlaws, but as heroes.”
Not that their life problems were suddenly going to go away. Or that the privileged and powerful members of society were suddenly going to start treating them with respect. But Somebody was watching out for them. Don’t be afraid, indeed.
And I wonder what a society would look like, that didn’t live afraid. That didn’t make decisions motivated by fear.
But what would take the place of fear?
Love might be a good choice.
(I’m still going to get out of the river when the bears come.)