In the last few weeks, my wife and I took our kids to see two plays. One was a professional production of A Christmas Carol at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, complete with special effects and truly lovely live music. The other was a version of A Charlie Brown Christmas, all performed by children save for Snoopy, whose adult actor supplied not just his uproariously non-verbal sounds but also his sound effects. It blessedly retained both Linus’s initial rendering of Luke 2:8-14 and Charlie Brown’s subsequent recollection of a snippet of the reading as a voice from heaven, while he holds on to his little tree gazing at the stars. Upon its debut 50 years ago on CBS, Harriet Van Horne of the New York World-Telegram is said to have hailed this scene, saying, “Linus’ reading of the story of the Nativity was, quite simply, the dramatic highlight of the season.”

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. (Luke 2:9; KJV)

Fear turns out to be all around the nativity accounts of Matthew and Luke. At least that’s the word that we get in many of our translations. But this fear, of course, is more like the “holy fear” for which the bishop prayed in the old service of the Book of Common Prayer:

Strengthen them, we beseech thee, O Lord, with the Holy Ghost the Comforter, and daily increase in them thy manifold gifts of grace; the spirit of wisdom and understanding; the spirit of counsel and ghostly strength; the spirit of knowledge and true godliness; and fill them, O Lord, with the spirit of thy holy fear, now and for ever.

Rudolf Otto wrote one of the 20th century works that returned this fundamental reality into theological discourse with his Das Heilige (1919), whose title-in-translation was The Idea of the Holy. How much it is read by theologians and liturgists these days is hard to tell. Within ten years of its initial publication in German, Das Heilige was translated into English, Swedish, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Dutch, and French. It has remained continually in print in English. Twenty-five German editions of the book were printed before 1936, and the thirtieth appeared in 1958. Some have speculated that it is probably the most widely read German theological work of the twentieth-century.

Otto’s argument (and you can get his whole shtick this if you read the first six chapters or 40 pages) is that any study of religion, Christianity or otherwise, is fundamentally broken if it does not include its non- or supra-rational aspects. “The holy” was the term he used to get at this. Recall how “the Holy One [of Israel]” serves as a name for God in the Old Testament; and recall too how this is taken up in identifying Jesus in the Gospels: the demons identify him as “the Holy One of Israel” (Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34). And after Jesus’ great Bread of Life discourse in John 6, after everyone has turned away, Jesus asks if the twelve want to leave as well. Peter replies: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

But “holy” here does not mean primarily “un-sinful,” Otto argues. Rather, it is a way to designate that between we creatures and God is fixed a great chasm that we cannot hope to cross. Hence Otto suggests a synonym for the holy: the Numinous. The human encounter with the Numinous is so central to religion, certainly for Judaism and Christianity, that to set it aside and focus solely on doctrine, hierarchical structures, even liturgical rites is, in essence, to study something other than a religion. This encounter he calls the mysterium tremendum, the mystery that overwhelms, even repels. There are many aspects to this encounter:

  • That “element of awfulness,” recalled by the root of tremendum in “tremor” and highlighted in the attribution of “wrath” to God (Otto famously says, contra many Protestant liberals of his time that “Christianity has something to teach of the ‘wrath of God’ … ” Idea of the Holy, p.18);
  • The element of “overpoweringness” (majestas), where we know our creaturehood (Geschöpflichkeit) and thus that there is a Creator who is wholly other than the creature. Accompanying it is the fitting “self-depreciation” in the face of the Creator — “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst enter under my roof.”
  • The element of “energy or urgency,” the knowledge of an overwhelming power that could consume a person but which we somehow desire.
  • The quality of being “wholly other,” not a different “thing” but rather something altogether and wholly “other” than us, “something that has no place in our scheme of reality.” The response might be described as “stupor” — “Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah. For he did not know what to say” (Mark 9:5-6).
  • The final quality is what Otto calls “fascination.” While one knows all the other elements, the person who encounters this Being nonetheless “feels a something that captivates and transports him with a strange ravishment, rising often enough to the pitch of dizzy intoxication.”

This is precisely what we see in the nativity schemes crafted with such care by St. Matthew and St. Luke. When Gabriel appears, everyone has to be told, “be not afraid.” When Zechariah asks how he can know (i.e. have some sort of certainty) about the truth of the divine prophecy, you can almost see Gabriel allowing a bit of the glory of his nature to seep out, to become just slightly more visible, his mighty visage growing slightly: “I am Gabriel, who stand in the presence of God; and I was sent to speak to you, and to bring you this good news” (Luke 1:19). In other words, if you knew what it is to stand in the presence of God (to be there, let alone to stand), you might respond a little differently. And it seems that the reality of all of this seeps into Zechariah’s neighbors, including the fear; for once his son is born, once he writes down “His name is John” and finds his tongue loosened and blessing God, fear comes upon “all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea; and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts” (Luke 1:57-66), rather like Mary.

Mary too, of course, is “greatly troubled,” so much so that Gabriel also has to tell her, “Fear not” (1:30). Whether it was because she was able to see this being who stands in the presence of God and is still alive, or whether she had such a realization before her angelic visitation, her Magnificat reveals something remarkable. The Blessed Virgin is full of the sense that the God who sent such a messenger is one before whom she must stand in holy fear: for this God scatters the proud, puts down mighty rulers straight out of their chairs, and tosses the rich out empty handed. John’s preaching too is full of literal geographic refiguring: if the valleys are filled and the mountains brought low, this is a landscape that will be unrecognizable (Luke 3:4-6). “Even now,” he thunders, “the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (3:9).

Frederick Buechner’s retelling of the intrigues of Isaac and Jacob in The Son of Laughter is full of details that kept sending me back to the Bible, only to realize that Buechner had fictionalized much less than I had thought. “The Fear” is what Isaac keeps calling the Lord, and it seems that this may have been some sort of name peculiar to the middle Patriarch: Jacob speaks of “the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac” (Gen 31:42) and then he swears his oath to his wily father-in-law Laban “by the Fear of his father Isaac” (31:53) and seals it with sacrifice.

The canticles of Mary and Zechariah seem to tell us contrary facts. Her Magnificat tells us that “his mercy is on them who fear him from generation to generation” (τὸ ἔλεος αὐτοῦ εἰς γενεὰς καὶ γενεὰς τοῖς φοβουμένοις αὐτόν) while Zechariah reminds us of the divine promise to Abraham, that we would be delivered from our enemies and serve him fearlessly (ἀφόβως).

But this is only the profound reality of standing before the God of Abraham, the Fear of Isaac, the Holy One of Nazareth, the Alpha and the Omega. A certain fear will disappear when we know our deliverance and we actually offer him service in our bodies. But it is a service that must be offered “with reverence and awe” for this Numinous and Blessed Trinity is nothing if not “consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28-29).

Charles Shultz was entirely correct. Here in America, where the commercial is king, a little child named Linus will lead us to a hill, the mountain of encounter. For there was revealed not only an angel of the glory, but the appearance of the Lord himself: “the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.” And the sign will be the reverse of Herod’s curse: an infant boy, nestled and vulnerable, held by an exhausted teenage Jewess. “Woman, behold your son.” Here is Isaac’s Fear revealed; here is Jacob’s ladder stretched out; here the Prince of this world looks on, agape. “It is finished.”

Matthew Olver’s other posts may be found here. The featured image was supplied by Jean Meade. 

About The Author

Fr. Matthew S.C. Olver is Assistant Professor of Liturgics & Pastoral Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary, a doctoral student at Marquette University, and assists at the Cathedral Church of All Saints in Milwaukee, WI. A priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, he was assistant rector at Church of the Incarnation (Dallas) from 2006-13, where he oversaw her worship life and adult formation. A graduate of Wheaton College (B.A., English literature) and Duke University Divinity School (M.Div.), Fr. Olver’s research interests include liturgical theology, the place of Scripture in early liturgical composition, ecclesiology, sacramental theology, and ecumenism. He is pleased to have an essay, “Documented Ecumenism: Why the Anglican Covenant is the Hope for Anglicanism and its Ecumenical Calling,” in Pro Communione: Theological Essays on the Anglican Covenant, ed. by Benjamin Guyer (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2012).

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