by Rev. Morley D. Rich
The Shepherds were simple men of good will. They reflected and were part of the ignorance and blindness of their times. So when "the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, they were sore afraid." (Luke 2:9) A trembling fear, tinged even with horror, took hold of them. Some of this feeling was a primitively superstitious fear. But that was not all of it, as becomes clear when the literal sense is carefully examined. For there was another quality in this fear which is instructive and beneficial to men.
It can be noticed that the angel of the Lord did not merely appear in the sky, as is ordinarily pictured; but he "came upon them," and by this there is conveyed the distinct impression that they saw the light around them, and felt his presence in it as being in their very midst, almost a part of themselves. And the "glory of the Lord" did not appear merely as a powerful light distant in the heavens, but it "shone round about them," as an encompassing glow immediately surrounding and enfolding each of them.
Indeed, what they saw and felt inwardly was the sphere of God Himself coming close to earth in the form of His Divinely-chosen Human, the Infant of Bethlehem. And so, in addition to primitive superstition, they felt powerfully a kind of holy fear which verged even upon horror. Concerning this kind of fear, the Lord in His second coming tells us, "Holy fear, which sometimes is accompanied by a sacred tremor of the interiors of the mind, and sometimes with a holy trembling of the body (horripilation), occurs when life enters from the Lord in place of one's own life. One's own life is to look from oneself to the Lord, but life from the Lord is to look to the Lord from the Lord, and yet as if from oneself. When man is in this latter state, he sees that he himself is not anything, but the Lord only." (AR 56)
When life from the Lord enters into any human being in place of that life which he thinks is his own, then he really sees himself as nothing in comparison with the Lord. And he looks at himself from the Lord - that is, not in his own light, but in the light of the Lord's teachings in His word. Such a looking, such a sight, brings to him a most deep and powerful fear, even trembling as well as humiliation.
It is the kind of feeling which assaults a person when he perceives the high holiness, the shining purity and Divine Love behind and within some one truth from the Word. The contrast between this and his own self is so extreme as to fill him with terror for his very life. The evils of his heredity, the offences he has committed even if unwittingly and without conscious malice, the gross, dark pattern of his attitudes and habits - all these suddenly appear to him as in a glaring light; and when he sees them in contrast with the vision which has appeared to him through the Lord's Word, he trembles inwardly with a fearful humiliation, sometimes even physically in his nerves and heart. He would exclaim in the words of the Psalm, "I am a worm and not a man, a reproach of man and despised by the people." (Ps. 22: 6)
Though unaware of it, such was part of that fear which seized the shepherds. But the angel comforted them, saying "Fear not." And this expressed the truth that, though it is salutary for man's heart and good for his spirit to experience this holy fear, yet he need not abandon hope for himself, for it is exactly in such a state that the Lord his Savior is closest to him, waiting to be born and enter in to him. "For behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, Who is Christ the Lord." (Luke 2: 10)
Good tidings in truth. This is what the word "Gospels" means when used to name the books of the New Testament; for 'gospel" is an old word meaning "good news." Yet this only limitedly describes the Divine and greatest message which has ever come to the world. The message of the Gospels is such that all the superlatives of every language in the world cannot fully express the profound and fundamental changes which the Lord effected by His birth, life in the world, and glorification changes in His relationship with men, in His approach to them, and even spiritual mutations in the very inmost constitution of mankind - by which He created new opportunities for salvation, doing fundamental works which would affect and change human history for all time in the future, changes of which He tells us in His second coming. These changes are largely hidden from the blind eyes of men; limited as is every human mind, men cannot see these changes in the human race clearly, even after two thousand years. And even then they can be seen only obscurely through the revealed truths of the Lord's second coming.
Editorial. New Church Life 1977;97:626-628