(written originally in 2003)
We’ve had a very blustery week of chilly snowy weather, with strong winds from the north, blowing branches off trees and anything not tied down. Our horses were out in their winter paddocks yesterday, as usual, and due to the fullness of the day’s activities, we didn’t get out to do chores until after dark to bring them in one by one.
The wind definitely changes everything once it is dark out, for us and for the horses. The familiar walk along the dark path from the paddocks to the barn, past several buildings, suddenly becomes spooky and more epic adventure than evening stroll. The wind whistles between the buildings, so everything sounds different than usual, and the blowing branches and goodness knows what else can appear threatening and menacing.
The horses’ eyes are big and bright with white as we walk in, and they jig and trot, glancing this way and that, clearly unnerved by the familiar becoming unfamiliar. They are uneasy and frightened, breathing hard and fast, and the younger ones are frankly terrified when a branch blows across their path, coming out of nowhere in the dark, and disappearing just as quickly. I talk to the horses as we walk, reassuring them, telling them there is no reason to be afraid, that there is nothing out here that will eat them or chase them, and they cock their ears back and forth, listening to me, then back to listening for that unknown “thing” out there that just might be ready to get them. If they had their ‘druthers, they’d be racing for the safety of the barn at full tilt, but that is not acceptable behavior, so they cope with being asked to stay close and walk alongside me.
Once in the barn, with muzzles into the feeders and eating their evening meal, their eyes soften again, and they relax, settling, knowing that they are safe and cared for and protected. A roll in the fresh shavings, a good shake and a huge snort of relief, and all is well. I can be easily unnerved too by the familiar suddenly becoming unfamiliar. I like to think I cope well with the unexpected, but it isn’t always the case, so I often need plenty of reassurance, and a steady voice beside me so I don’t get catastrophic in my fear.
Sometimes, as a president so wisely implied years ago, our own fear becomes the thing we fear the most. And it need not be.This type of fear in the face of the unexpected happened years and years ago, to people who were society’s cast-offs, relegated to tending flocks as they had no other skill of value. They were the forgotten and the least of men. Yet what they saw and heard that Christmas night put them first, allowed them access that no one else had. Within the familiarity of their fields and flocks came this most unexpected and frightening experience, terrifying in its sheer “other worldliness”, and blinding in its grandeur. They must have been flattened with fear and terror.
And so the reassurance came: “Be not afraid”.
In the same way we whisper to our frightened horses and hold them close to us, so these shepherds were picked up, dusted off and sent on their way to the safety and familiar security of a barn, to see with their own eyes what they could not imagine. A baby born in so primitive a place, yet celebrated from the heavens. The least becomes first, and the first becomes the least.
Sometimes, in these dark times, our terror is for good reason, and we need to know where to seek our reassurance. It is there for us and always has been, walking beside us, speaking to us from a manger bed, feeding us when we are hungry and tending to us when we need it.
Merry Christmas and do not be afraid.