Read: Luke 2:8-20
Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. (Luke 2:9, NRSV).
The shepherds were right to be terrified. The glory of the Lord can get you killed.
Ask the prophet Isaiah, who sees the Lord “high and lifted up” and knows right away he has no business in the presence of such electrifying holiness. “Woe is me!” he cries in Isaiah 6. “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
Moses may not know what he is getting into when he blithely says to the Almighty, “Show me your glory, I pray” (Ex. 33:18). God agrees, but only after stashing Moses in the cleft of a rock. When God passes by, Moses only gets to see God’s backside. We’re left to assume that God’s full-frontal glory would have turned Moses to cinders.
And then there is Ezekiel who is so nervous about describing God’s glory that he begins to sound like a contemporary teenager. The last three verses of Ezekiel’s call narrative contain eleven uses of the word “like” (Ez. 1:26-28). It’s just too risky to come right out and describe what God, so he settles for approximations. At the end he sums it all up with the doubly-distancing sentence: “This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.” Then he promptly falls on his face.
So we can hardly blame those certain poor shepherds in the gospel of Luke for being “sore afraid” (KJV) when “an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.”
One of my favorite Christmas pageant memories is of the year when my daughter (then about age 7) played an unsuspecting shepherd. This was one of those delightfully unrehearsed productions. She had been told to “do whatever the story says.” So when the angel showed up and she heard the words, “sore afraid,” she dropped to the floor and started writhing. “Well, the story did say SORE!’ she told me afterwards.
Sometimes I wish we could capture a bit more of that “sore afraid” spirit when we hear the Christmas story. It’s one of those times when familiarity breeds not so much “contempt” as “numbness.”
Maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to this poem be Jaroslav Vajda. It helps us to feel the shock waves in this story. And if we find ourselves scurrying for cover when the angel tears the sky apart with light—well—maybe that’s as it should be.
Before the Marvel of This Night
Before the marvel of this night
Adoring, fold your wings and bow,
Then tear the sky apart with light
And with your news the world endow,
Proclaim the birth of Christ and peace,
That fear and death and sorrow cease:
Sing peace, sing gift of peace!
Awake the sleeping world with song,
This is the day the Lord has made.
Assemble here, celestial throng,
In royal splendor come arrayed.
Give earth a glimpse of heav’nly bliss,
A teasing taste of what they miss:
Sing bliss, sing endless bliss!
The love that we have always known,
Our constant joy and endless light,
Now to the loveless world be shown,
Now break upon its deathly night.
Into one song compress the love,
That rules our universe above:
Sing love, sing God is love!
Text by Jaroslav Vajda
Listen: Before the Marvel of This Night This anthem by Carol Schalk interprets a poem by Jaroslav Vajda. This recording is by the St. Olaf Choral Ensemble.
Pray: Give us the sense to know when we are on holy ground this Christmas.
Introduction to the Tuned for Praise Series
Leonard Bernstein once observed that “music . . . can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.”
In this series, we will take advantage of music’s power to pick up where words leave off. Each Bible passage will be paired with a link to a recording that—in my judgement at least—interprets Scripture’s words in ways that words cannot.