Fourth Sunday of Advent — December 24, 2023

"We need not understand all the science behind awe to appreciate its gift and join the heavenly host in singing God’s praise," writes Teri McDowell Ott.

Luke 1:26-38 and Luke 2:1-14
Year B

Browsing the new releases shelf at my library, the book Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life by psychologist Dacher Keltner called to me. In the 1960s neuroscientists began mapping emotions in the human brain such as anger, fear, sadness, surprise and joy. Awe was left unstudied — scientists at the time viewed it as a phenomenon of the soul, or of the sacred; an experience that defied measurement. But in 2003, Keltner and his colleagues immersed themselves in studies of mystics and anthropologists’ accounts of experiences of awe in dance, music, art and religion. The scientists recognized awe as a distinct emotion, registered uniquely in the brain, Keltner writes, defining it as “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world.”

The Greek word fobeō runs throughout Luke’s first and second chapters, which can be translated as “fear” or “awe.” Whenever God or one of God’s messengers comes near, biblical characters feel this mix of emotions, a disorienting reverence at being in the presence of something that transcends understanding.

When the angel Gabriel greets Mary with the news that she will give birth to God’s son, Mary is “much perplexed” (v. 29) — disoriented and awestruck by this word from God. The angel responds to Mary’s awe with words of reassurance: “Do not be afraid (fobeō), Mary, for you have found favor with God” (v. 30).

In Luke 2, an angel of the Lord appears to the shepherds to bring the good news of great joy that our Savior has been born. In the presence of the angel, these field hands were “terrified” (fobeō).

When experiencing awe, Keltner discovered a trend. People’s sense of themselves as independent individuals diminished while their sense of connectedness, being a small part of something larger, increased. Awe is a transformative emotion, countering the sins of self-centered individualism, materialism, and greed. “Awe shifts us from a competitive, dog-eat-dog mindset,” Keltner writes, “to perceive that we are part of networks of more interdependent, collaborating individuals. We sense that we are part of a chapter in the history of a family, a community, a culture, an ecosystem.”

Drawing on the studies of William James, Charles Darwin and Jane Goodall, Keltner also noted how our bodies register the experience of awe. We get the chills or tears come to our eyes or we gasp audibly, vocalizing our emotion with a “Whoa.”

On Christmas Eve, I always experience at least one moment when tears come to my eyes. The moment usually comes at the end of worship, as the gathered pass the light of Christ from candle to candle while we sing the quiet hymn “Silent Night.” When I have been leading worship in these moments, I inevitably choke on the words of the Benediction afterward, overcome by the beauty of a sanctuary aglow in candlelight, the goodness that grows when people contribute their single light to a collective effort, and the awe of our God whose extraordinary love inspires it all.

People across the world will pack sanctuaries on December 24, eager and hopeful, searching for a sense of this transcendent experience. Pastors will no doubt collapse into their beds that night, utterly spent from a full day of services for both the fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas Eve. But even though they will be physically exhausted, Christmas adrenaline may keep them from sleep as they bake in the warm afterglow of an awe-inspiring experience that transcends understanding, transforms us into beloved community, and reveals what is possible for us and our world — by the grace and love of God.

“Do not be afraid,” the angel reassures. We need not understand all the science behind awe to appreciate its gift and join the heavenly host in singing God’s praise: “Hark! The herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the new born king!’” (Glory to God, #119).

Questions for reflection

  1. What thoughts, feelings, ideas or images come to mind as you read the texts for December 24?
  2. When have you experienced awe? What inspired it? What did it feel like? Did you get the chills, feel tears come to your eyes or react with an audible, “Whoa!”?
  3. Do you remember experiences of awe at Christmas? Were those experiences transformative? How so?

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Looking for resources for Christmas Eve services? We have those too. Here is our Family Christmas Eve Service liturgy. And here is a list of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day prayers.