God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay...
To my knowledge, "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" is the only Christmas Carol which reflects the only phrase repeated more then twice in the Nativity narratives from the Bible; "fear not." Every angelic manifestation in both Luke and Matthew's accounts of the birth of Christ is followed by those two words. Apparently something about the appearance of an angel is something which inspires fear. These are apparently not the angels one sees in Precious Moments illustrations or on the covers of all those Angel spirituality books which were all the rage about ten years ago. They're not fat little cherub baby angels, or Cupid with his bow. They're not Hallmark greeting angels. They're angels drawn by H.R. Giger, or Simon Bisley. Bisley's a regular artist for Heavy Metal magazine; his work is generally characterized by weapons as disproportionate as the physical statistics of the scantily clad warrior women wielding them. He's done a book of illustrations based on stories from the Bible, and I think his angels are the sort which would have to say, "Fear not" after they show up.
The angel who appeared to the shepherds "watching their flocks by night" is said to have had the glory of the Lord shining around him. The way most modern worship treats the concept of the glory of the Lord, you'd think it was something pastel in color, and perhaps vanilla hazelnut in flavor. The maker's of last year's movie The Nativity either had the lowest budget ever for representing the glory of the Lord, or were under the impression that it resembled a curly haired man backlit by a bright light. Backlit hair is what causes the shepherds to be "sore afraid"? Those words in the Greek are megas and phobios, which any English speaking person can recognize modern equivalents; mega phobia. Super Sized Scary. In Exodus 24:17 the glory of the Lord appeared as a "consuming fire on the top of the mountain," and was so frightening the nation of Israel refused to approach the base of the mountain. In Isaiah chapter 6, the prophet's reaction to seeing a manifestation of the Lord in the temple solicited a "woe is me!" response, an ancient world equivalent to "I'm totally fucked!" Ezekiel say only "the appearance of the likeness of the Glory of the Lord," a sort of Glory Lite, and he ended up flat on his face in terror. So I'm thinking there's more going on here than cheap backlighting, or a bright light shining through a window. I'd suppose it looks more like Aang, the protagonist of Avatar: The Last Airbender when he goes into his Avatar state. It produces a "Sore Afraid" reaction in the characters who are witness to it.
These fear-inspiring angels are often overlooked in the Christmas story, to our detriment. Their presence in the story is evidence of the apocalyptic nature of the Nativity narratives. This isn't to say they have something to do with the end of the world. That's how we commonly understand the word "Apocalypse" now, but it isn't what Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature is primarily concerned with. N.T. Wright has said that to speak of something in an apocalyptic manner is to invest "space-time reality with its full, that is, its theological significance."
The birth of Jesus is spoken of in an apocalyptic fashion in Revelation 12, where a child is born to a woman, and a giant red dragon immediately tries to kill the child off. Scholars are in strong agreement that the child is the Messiah, so it's sort of like a really intense version of the Christmas story with an insane effects budget. And it mirrors King Herod's attempt to murder Jesus by killing all the children under the age of 3 in the Matthew account. The story also echoes Moses' escape from Pharaoh as a baby. A commentary on Revelation 12 notes that "Many ancient mythologies contain a story of an evil usurper who is doomed to be vanquished by a yet unknown prince. The usurper tries to escape his destiny by killing the prince when he is born. But the prince is unexpectedly snatched away from danger until he is old enough to kill the fiend and claim his rightful inheritance and throne." This motif in stories about Jesus' birth tells us that the story is about more than just a birth. This is apocalyptic.
Science fiction writer Philip Jose Farmer writes that "Apocalypse...is sometimes applied to writings or paintings in which great forces--supernatural or natural--are at work, usually evil work, and great things are occurring. Cities are toppling, the earth is opening vast mouths and swallowing up armies, huge and hideous monsters stride the world, the sun is turning black or expanding into a giant star, hordes of half-human, half-beast things are torturing naked people, the stars are dripping blood. In short, things on a vast scale are threatening the world. And there is always the feeling, even in the non-biblical writings and paintings of good and evil in earthshaking conflict. Hell has broken loose and only an archangel, or a hero, or God himself can defeat it. Nowadays, there is the feeling that the archangel or hero won't show; it's all over with the world. But in the earlier days of the apocalyptic works, the savior would appear when needed."
Mary is having a baby. It is an event that, while dangerous in the first century B.C.E., wasn't uncommon. It wasn't out of the ordinary. Yet the Nativity writers, and the author of Revelation have invested the event with its "theological significance." So Mary is not just having a baby...she is giving birth to the savior of the world. The angelic annunciations signal that this is no ordinary child. And the ones who sing the birth of Christ are part of the angelic "host". The Greek word used there, stratia, refers to an army, or band of soldiers. These are warrior angels...who sing. Which wasn't weird, given that the musicians marched with the army in Biblical Israel.
Warrior angels, a crazed king attempting to assassinate an infant Messiah, red dragons as stand-ins for the devil...sounds like a fight is brewing.
My wife and I were in Mazatlan, Mexico for Christmas in 1996, where we saw a unique Nativity Creche. It had all the usual suspects; Mary, Joseph, the baby in the manger, the Shepherds, and the Wise Men. And in the corner...an unusual suspect. A red devil, looking really pissed off. At first, I was taken aback...but upon further reflection, I realized it made perfect sense.
To free all those who trust in him from Satan's power and might...
A fight brewing indeed.
In "The Novels of Charles Williams," Thomas Howard quotes T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland, equating "the fear in a handful of dust" with the "enormous and alarming significance lying just under the surface of even the most ordinary things." While scientists would approach this from the vantage point of sub-atomic activity in a handful of dust, prophets remind us that heaven and hell are potentially present in every action we take. "The sarcastic lift of an eyebrow carries a seed of murder since it bespeaks my wish to diminish someone else's existence. To open a door for a man carrying luggage recalls the Cross since it is a small case in point of putting the other person first. We live in the middle of all this but it is so routine that it is hard to stay alive to it."
Christmas takes us out of the routine, shakes us up, and reminds us to live in an apocalyptic fashion, to invest our lives with theological significance. We aren't simply donating to charity or being patient with a grocery-clerk-in-training, we're fighting on behalf of Heaven. Likewise, we aren't only being greedy pigs at Christmas or yelling at the grocery-clerk-in-training, we're advancing the cause of Hell. I don't want to be sensational when I say this. I'm not advocating a "devil under every rock" sort of spirituality, or a "angels everywhere" conceptualization of the universe, but simply to allow the Nativity narratives to remind us to view our lives through a more cosmic lense, and see that our actions bear significance, even when they are little ones. After all, an avalanche can be started by the movement of pebbles. We are invited to engage in the apocalyptic conflict, because, as Greg Boyd writes in God at War, "For biblical authos, to wage war against such things as injustice, oppresision greed and apathy toward the needy was to participate...in a cosmic war that had engulfed the earth." Or, as John McClane put it in one of my favorite Christmas movies, "if you're not a part of the solution, you're a part of the problem."