Thursday, December 20, 2007

Dr Thursday's Third Thursday in Advent Post

Three Thursdays of Advent - a Trinity of Christmas Truths:
3. The Shepherds (and the Angels)

again with a subtitle:

News - and not N's

That last character is not an English N, but the capital Greek "nu". For we shall start with a bit of language lesson today:
Angel, ankle, anchor, sphinx
Are joined by Chestertonian links
There, gamma gives us nu's effects
Preceding G, K, C, or X.
Of course the person who wrote that is not very Greek-literate, or he would have written the last line differently. It ought to say "preceding gamma, kappa, chi, or xi". But then he would have had to change the rhyme, and the rhythm... well, it does not pay to criticise a poet. Besides, it's fun to see that G, K, C there. Uh-oh.

Eee-oo, Eee-oo.
"Yes, ossifer, I was rhyming without a license again..."
"Pay your bail,
Or it's off to jail."

Ahem. (Sorry, I got carried away. Christmas, Greek, and so forth...) Yes, in Greek, a gamma before these four letters (gamma, kappa, chi, xi) has the effect of a nu, or at least a nasalizing. Ask your neighbourhood Greek scholar if you want to know more.

I bring up this odd little effect of the Greek gamma, because I hunted up the word "angel" in my splendid GIGANTIC copy of Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon. It weighs maybe 10 pounds, and is over 3.5 inches thick... whew! But as Greek scholars will point out, you will NOT find "angel" (OK, actually "angelos") if you hunt under alpha, nu, gamma... that's not how it's spelled. It's spelled aggeloV - that is, alpha, gamma, gamma, epsilon, lambda, omicron, sigma. Two gammas, but but it still sounds like angelos. It means, simply, "messenger" or "envoy". The related word angelia means "message", whether the substance (the information) or the conveyance (the media).

Why am I bothering about some abstruse detail about the word "angel" when I am supposed to be talking about the SHEPHERDS?

Well, partly because of what GKC pointed out about this matter. All too often, there is a loss of perspective in the matter of shepherds - especially when considered next to angels, which is where we really need to consider them:
...the more the artists learned of realism and perspective, the less they could depict at once the angels in the heavens and the shepherds on the hills, and the glory in the darkness that was under the hills.[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:305]
Hence, if we really want to know more about the shepherds, we have to know more about the angels, and what it was that was happening, there in the fields, during the night shift. (No we are NOT going to see them dancing on the pinheads. Not today. There's a form to be filled out if you want that.)
Read more.
First, and it bears repeating - an "angel" is NOT simply a "kind" of being - it is a being who is holding, or carrying out an office - specifically a messenger. The correct term for them is "Spirit" - specifically Good Spirit, to distinguish from those we glimpsed last week. Even though we have some hints, we don't quite know how else they occupy themselves - it seems every time we see them they are delivering a message to somebody. Kind of God's FedEx. One place where it seems we catch them out-of-uniform was in the vision of Isaias:
And they [angels] cried one to another, and said: "Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God of hosts, all the earth is full of his glory." [Is 6:3]
Uh, oh. Nope. Read it again. It says they cried ONE TO ANOTHER. They're such perfect messengers when they're not busy, they keep in practice sending the same message over and over again to each other! And why not? The statement "The Lord God of hosts is holy, holy, holy" is perhaps the most sublime of all truths. It ought to be repeated. If we understood it - and angels, not having to bother with school and study and research and forgetting, and all that, certainly understand it. As I was saying, if we understood it, we would know it is not just a simple quibble like "2+2=4" or "the sun rises in the east" or whatever. For in this statement is contained infinite depth of truth which only God himself knows completely. Hence the angels, as they stand before him, gaze into this infinity and see more and more, and are moved to say it again and again, in utter and total joy. And there is no joy like the joy of satisfaction of grasping a truth!

Now, where do the shepherds come in?

Well. You see, there was this Roman poet Virgil. He wrote about shepherds, and country scenes. People had gotten citified with all that Roman stuff, and forgotten their roots: a simple people who worried about keeping their kitchen fire burning, their crops growing, their livestock increasing... Ah (you can imagine them sighing) back then we were HAPPY. Curious. The Latin word "felix" usually translated "happy" is derived from "fecund" - a crop-growing word - it first meant "fruitful". (It may be a shock to learn that fetus and female and related words come from the same root.) Virgil, as you may know, wrote a sequel to Homer (yeah, it's been happening for over 2000 years) called "The Aeneid". He also wrote a bunch of poems called the Bucolics, or Eclogues. (I always mix up if there are two sets or just two names.) One of these, the Fourth Eclogue, is perhaps the most famous poem in the world. I wrote about it previously, and GKC talks about it in our main reference (CW2:292, 307-8) But here I mention it not to explore it, but just to point out that the other big piece of the puzzle - the one not among our three present topics of study, which is Rome - was quite aware of a certain importance of shepherds - not just as the lowly people necessary if one wants wool and lambchops, but as forming an important element, and a simple (and HAPPY=felix) one, as part of the Roman thing.

There was also a Hebrew poet who we first hear about watching his sheep. He ended up getting another job - hard to say if it was a promotion, but he kept on writing poems in any case. One of the most famous of his poems is often quoted as a great prayer for peace, in which case either the quoter hasn't really read it, or he doesn't know much about life as a shepherd. I mean, of course, David, who later became King of Israel, and his psalm about how the Lord is his shepherd. It contains one of the most militant phrases in all the psalms: "For though I should walk in the midst of the shadow of death, I will fear no evils, for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they have comforted me." [PS 22(23):4] And this provides the critical link to our topic of last week: How on earth can a shepherd guarantee peace to his flock if he is unarmed? But our Lord is the Lord of Armies, the God of Battles. David fought with God's help, attained victory over the enemies of Israel (remember Goliath? There was a lot more after that) and established peace. He knew what being a shepherd required.

Now that we've reviewed these two items, we come to the shepherds who "were in the same country, keeping night watch" that night when Jesus was born. Here we could get into the discussion of how that means it wasn't winter, or how there could not be snow, etc., etc. I am not going to go there, except to mention how it snowed when Gilbert and Frances visited Jerusalem in 1919. [See The New Jerusalem CW20:238]

Recalling that GKC had actually been to the Holy Land, then, let us now hear how GKC considered the shepherds. He gets to the matter in one of his penetrating insights, which is tied in to our discussion previously about how Christmas is the "invasion" from Heaven. And, like the Hobbits, there's a riddle involved: the riddle of Bethlehem it was heaven that was under the earth.

There is in that alone the touch of a revolution, as of the world turned upside down. It would be vain to attempt to say anything adequate, or anything new, about the change which this conception of a deity born like an outcast or even an outlaw had upon the whole conception of law and its duties to the poor and outcast. It is profoundly true to say that after that moment there could be no slaves. There could be and were people bearing that legal title until the Church was strong enough to weed them out, but there could be no more of the pagan repose in the mere advantage to the state of keeping it a servile state. Individuals became important, in a sense in which no instruments can be important. A man could not be a means to an end, at any rate to any other man's end. All this popular and fraternal element in the story has been rightly attached by tradition to the episode of the Shepherds; the hinds who found themselves talking face to face with the princes of heaven. But there is another aspect of the popular element as represented by the shepherds which has not perhaps been so fully developed; and which is more directly relevant here. Men of the people, like the shepherds, men of the popular tradition, had everywhere been the makers of the mythologies. It was they who had felt most directly, with least check or chill from philosophy or the corrupt cults of civilisation, the need we have already considered; the images that were adventures of the imagination; the mythology that was a sort of search; the tempting and tantalising hints of something half-human in nature; the dumb significance of seasons and special places. They had best understood that the soul of a landscape is a story and the soul of a story is a personality. But rationalism had already begun to rot away these really irrational though imaginative treasures of the peasant; even as systematic slavery had eaten the peasant out of house and home. Upon all such peasantries everywhere there was descending a dusk and twilight of disappointment, in the hour when these few men discovered what they sought. Everywhere else Arcadia was fading from the forest. Pan was dead and the shepherds were scattered like sheep. And though no man knew it, the hour was near which was to end and to fulfil all things; and though no man heard it, there was one far-off cry in an unknown tongue upon the heaving wilderness of the mountains. The shepherds had found their Shepherd.

And the thing they found was of a kind with the things they sought. The populace had been wrong in many things; but they had not been wrong in believing that holy things could have a habitation and that divinity need not disdain the limits of time and space. And the barbarian who conceived the crudest fancy about the sun being stolen and hidden in a box, or the wildest myth about the god being rescued and his enemy deceived with a stone, was nearer to the secret of the cave and knew more about the crisis of the world than all those in the circle of cities round the Mediterranean who had become content with cold abstractions or cosmopolitan generalisations; than all those who were spinning thinner and thinner threads of thought out of the transcendentalism of Plato or the orientalism of Pythagoras. The place that the shepherds found was not an academy or an abstract republic; it was not a place of myths allegorised or dissected or explained or explained away. It was a place of dreams come true. Since that hour no mythologies have been made in the world. Mythology is a search. We all know that the popular presentation of this popular story, in so many miracle plays and carols, has given to the shepherds the costume, the language, and the landscape of the separate English and European countrysides. We all know that one shepherd will talk in a Somerset dialect or another talk of driving his sheep from Conway towards the Clyde. Most of us know by this time how true is that error, how wise, how artistic, how intensely Christian and Catholic is that anachronism. [GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:305-7, emphasis added]
There is so much meat here I would be at it for several more pages, going further and further into all kinds of interesting matters, and yet still not talking about the one which motivated me in the beginning. That is, the one which links shepherds with angels and Nu's, I mean News.

And you may delight because of it, because you'll get to hear just a tiny bit about Subsidiarity, which I still hope to get completed.

You see, God himself did what he told us at the Last Supper when he washed the feet of the apostles, as he told his apostles: the Son of Man did not come to BE SERVED but TO SERVE.... [Mt 20:28]


At Christmas, the great secret - the most marvellous of all secrets, the secret of new life which is known only to pregnant women, God's own secret that "the Word is made flesh" is suddenly made known by direct view. Mary sees her newborn. Standing vigil at the cave-mouth, Joseph hears the infant cry and comes in when Mary calls him - he sees, and now he also knows.


The great sea-going writer, Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, wrote one of the most priceless and most dramatic lines I have ever read in his book on Columbus, Admiral of the Ocean Sea. Speaking of that incredible night from October 11 to 12 in 1492, he wrote:
Not since the birth of Christ has there been a night so full of meaning for the human race.
Elsewhere, he tells of how Columbus, struck by a storm during the return journey, was in agony, copying out his logs and sealing them in casks, anxious that his news be spread even if he be lost... For the first rule of discovery is to LET SOMEONE KNOW WHAT YOU'VE DISCOVERED.

Likewise, the fundamental law of ALL science: it is not science until it is "published" - somehow it must be told to others.

So what did God do?

Immediately, the full armies of heaven are dispatched, songbooks in hand, to the fields near Bethlehem. Why? Hard to find someone lower than a tired, stinky, hungry, poor, bored, sleepy shepherd on a hillside of a little town.

But God knew where they were. And what does God do? He sent the whole army - a "great multitude of the heavenly host" - here "host" means army. And you don't send armies around unless they have orders.

Remember - no need to keep things secret any more. The plan has begun. So, (as said in another story of a Close Encounter) the Son came out at night and they sang to Him. (hee hee! Ahem.)

As usual the angels (being angelic, in the Greek sense!) had a message. Here it is:
"Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy that shall be to all the people: for, this day is born to you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David. And this shall be a sign unto you. You shall find the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger." [Lk 2:10-12]
If the great joy is for all people, the only way that can happen is for them to be TOLD about it.

Now, the shepherds, not being fools, saw that this news story could easily be checked. All they had to do was go over to the town mangers (in the cave, you know, everybody knows where that is) and see if there was a newborn baby boy there...

But the critical line, you see, comes a little further down: "And all that heard wondered: and at those things that were told them by the shepherds." [Lk 2:18, emphasis added] Just a line further on, the Latin has the verb reversi sunt (they returned) - this provides a clue. It's as if the shepherds were REVERSED - in a manner of speaking, they had been promoted. The lowest are now doing the work of the highest. (Inversion of the hierarchy, you see.) They were now performing the office of messenger. Exalted above even the principalities and powers, these poor folk were now the angels, and their feet are beautiful on the mountains [Is. 52:7] bringing the Good News: a Baby is born in Bethlehem.
It is all that is in us but a brief tenderness that is there made eternal; all that means no more than a momentary softening that is in some strange fashion become a strengthening and a repose; it is the broken speech and the lost word that are made positive and suspended unbroken; as the strange kings fade into a far country and the mountains resound no more with the feet of the shepherds; and only the night and the cavern lie in fold upon fold over something more human than humanity. [GKC, The Everlasting Man CW2:317]
Let us hasten to the cavern, pray there, then take on our duty to proclaim this good news, singing like the angels, singing the joy of good news over and over, again and again:

Doxa in `uyistoiV Qeon kai epi ghV eirhnh en anqrwpois eudokiaV.

Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.

That is, "Glory in the highest to God and on Earth peace to men of good will."

A holy, merry, Chestertonian Christmas to all!

--Dr. Thursday

PS It strikes me, having read this over again, that there is a paradox between the Hobbit-like secret invasion and its news-flash reporting by angelic choir. Of course there's a paradox - we're talking about God-made-man here, what would you expect? Chesterton doesn't have a copyright on paradox, little buddy. God was quite aware of the leak, having lit up the star (whatever it really was!) as we saw previously - he knew he was drawing a line in the sand - or perhaps I should say on the Hill - and at the right time he would cross it. It was even so prophesied: "This child shall be a sign of contradiction..." [Lk 2:34] More on this some other time. But don't forget that Christmas is first and foremost a Mass - that is, a sacrifice. -- Dr. T.


  1. "Ask your neighbourhood Greek scholar if you want to know more."

    He ran off with the neighborhood grocer. (I recall being told to "run down to the store and get more milk," et al. Grandma always provided for penny candy, too--what a life.)

    I'm tutoring in Latin again, and have told my eleven-year-old scholar that if he works hard he can have his very own student next year. (Where in the world I'm going to get a student to give him is a matter of some concern.) I love tutoring and would never go back to teaching. But my lack of Greek now bothers me more than ever.

    And no, this doesn't have anything to do with shepherds either. ;-)

  2. You can get him a student in probably the nearest homeschooled family. We seem to be notorious for wanting to learn these silly "dead" languages!


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