In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see -- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"
Now we're getting somewhere.
This is the stuff of Christmas, as it tends to get transmitted in culture both high (no, that link doesn't lead to Messiah!) and popular. It is so familiar, perhaps, that we don't actually hear it anymore.
Oh, we hear it for certain, when we watch A Charlie Brown Christmas or see the Christmas pageant or the Christmas Eve service, but there's hearing, and there's hearing, and I'm not sure we hear it.
Maybe this is a place where a more modern translation, like the NRSV above, might help. There's a difference in impact between saying there were shepherds "abiding" in the field, and shepherds "living" in the fields. And how long has it been since you took the time to figure out what "sore afraid" means? But we get "terrified." Maybe not as poetic, but meaningful.
Again, this is maybe a place where our little pageants don't help us. Who can be terrified of the cute little boy or girl playing the angel? And yet our understanding of this passage, of the shock and, yes, terror the shepherds felt gets diminished every year.
To go back to A Charlie Brown Christmas: if Shermy thought it was frustrating to play a shepherd every year in the Christmas play, he'd have been totally bummed at being a shepherd for real. Living (not just abiding) in the fields, trying to keep track of some of the dumbest animals in creation, fighting off predators, fighting off weather, fighting off boredom...again, perhaps not quite like our romanticized illustrated Bible might suggest.
And into this mixture of tedium and chill bursts an angel, appearance enough to leave the shepherds terrified. The angel's announcement probably didn't help matters. When a terrifying being tells you not to be afraid, it doesn't usually help. The heart of the announcement -- a baby born Messiah, wrapped up in cloth scraps and laid in a feed trough? -- probably came off as more confusing than comforting. And then...if one angel was terrifying, a multitude of same was probably heart attack-inducing.
This might, in all the nativity narratives of Matthew and Luke combined, be the scene that comes closest to capturing something of the radical in-breaking that the scriptures of Advent pointed toward. An event out of the blue, overturning the existence of those who witnessed and experienced it, the announcement would seem to have made it impossible for the shepherds' lives to go on as normal, wouldn't it? How do you go back to humdrum shepherding after that?
When you say you want to feel the Spirit, to know what it is to be face-to-face with the radical action of God Almighty, keep these guys in mind. Their lives are being invaded in this passage. They are being thrown into the middle of an unexpected and inconceivable divine intervention, and they can't quite know what's next. Except for one detail: they've gotta check this out.
Our dramatist Luke shows his flair here. Change of scene; he might as well have started this passage with the Greek equivalent of "Meanwhile..." But the choice of shepherds for this scene -- shepherds, not kings or wealthy folk or even good solid citizens, but grungy, scruffy, legally unreliable shepherds -- reveals more than dramatic flair; under the radar Luke is making a statement about the kind of Messiah being born on this night. The scruffy, smelly folk, the undesirables, the social outcasts ... these are his people, even when he's barely out of the womb. There might have been less likely people on the planet that night to be the recipients of this angelic outbreak, but it's hard to think of who they might have been.
And this is worth breaking out the angelic multitude. Not just the birth of a Messiah, but this Messiah, the one who seeks out shepherds and fisherfolk and others on or beyond the fringes. That's worth a good rousing chorus of "Glory to God."