Trembling

Silent night! Holy night!
Shepherds quake at the sight!
Glories stream from Heaven afar,
Heavenly Hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ, the Saviour, is born!
Christ, the Saviour, is born!

Shepherds quaked at the sight, and who could blame them? Sensitive Christmas shepherds reacted as one might expect when confronted by a choir of angels. These men, who struggled to eke out a hard scrabble life upon the cold and foreboding plains of Israel, were among the first to be granted a wondrous revelation, and it brought them to their shaking knees.

Is it wrong to admit physical reaction to spiritual reality? I hope not. From childhood church services at Trinity Baptist Church in Port Arthur to Royal Ambassador campfires on the Easley’s farm, from grand houses of worship in Britain to thatched huts in Kenya’s northern frontier, I have trembled at the overwhelming nearness of Almighty God. I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in contemporary Christianity bent on removing mystery from devotion; it may be easier to tame the wind than keep our hearts in check when overwhelmed by grace. Though modern sensibilities may resist it, trembling depicts an essential movement of the heart before God. One need look no farther than the Psalms to find individuals whose Godward reaction is physical and audible. The Psalmists groan, cry, moan, laugh, long, desire, despise, dance, and shout; authentic and spontaneous, the Psalms disclose the sinner’s honest response to the overwhelming majesty of God. If we would understand their songs and allow them to nurture our inner life, we too must learn to tremble before our Creator; sadly, the physical and emotional experience of awe is largely absent from what we smugly term “worship” today. Desensitized by our own living, we are too numb to recognize the Holy. Our pace of life and even the noise in church can drown out a thunderous divine voice. Joining the masses of popular culture who see at best a God who is distant and unlikely to be encountered in the “real world”, many run aground on social sand bars, rejecting any sense of wonder having been persuaded that it simply isn’t sophisticated to allow religion to touch them very deeply or, Heaven forbid, visibly.

Physical trembling is not our main concern, of course, but I hesitate to put us at ease too quickly. It seems odd that while all creation shudders before the power and purity of the Exalted One, we should proceed routinely, wholly untouched by His Presence. From Belshazzar’s knees clattering together, through Quaker and Puritan revivals, and on up to modern times, many have had a physical response to the reality of God. The mind, body, psyche, and spirit are woven together so tightly that we should expect to be affected as whole persons when we sincerely encounter God. The Hebrew words most often used for “fear” in the Old Testament depict God as one who elicits ultimate respect. Fearing God in the Psalms does not primarily mean quivering in anxiety and terror, but instead describes a profound sense of reverence. The heart of this experience is acknowledging the superiority of God over against ourselves. God is the Wholly Other; to encounter this Holy One leaves us awestruck. We may respond with tears or praise or with great waves of laughter and joy, rolling out of every corner of our beings, or the open-mouthed astonishment may strike us silent. Christ the Savior is born, and it is entirely appropriate to tremble in his presence.

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