And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, 'Be not afraid ...'
When we hear these familiar words from Luke's Gospel, cheerful scenes from Christmas cards immediately spring to mind: quiet people in handsome robes gathered around a fire on the hillsides or winged angels dressed for a wedding floating in a sky full of stars, one of which is huge and hangs over the attractive town of Bethlehem in the distance. We can imagine the child with eyes sparkling in the manger nearby, the smell of hay, and the quiet munching of several peaceful farm animals.
We easily leave unexplored key words in Luke's narrative. He writes about fear in the night; a fear unexpectedly diminished by a birth the angel voice announces, but a birth, Matthew relates, that will stir the fear of Herod so profoundly that his own response will be to murder the younger sons of Bethlehem.
The setting of this biblical text is the night. The meaning of night is the focus of an old story about a rabbi who enters into discussion with his students. When, he asks them, can one know the night has ended and the day has begun? Is it that moment, suggests one student, when you can tell the difference between a sheep and a dog? No, says the rabbi, that isn't it. Is it, asks another, when you can see the difference between an olive tree and a fig tree? Not that either, says the rabbi. Rather, he says, it is that moment when you can look at a face never seen before and recognize the stranger as a brother or sister. Until that moment, he adds, no matter how bright the day, it is still the night.