"SORE AFRAID": from the Gospel of Luke, a couple of words as apt to Y2K as they were to Y1 and quite a few millennia before that as well. Despite this country's great wealth, unnaturally good health, conveniences, comforts, unprecedented freedom and the security devices that protect them all, we sit as uneasy now as shepherds in the fields did then, always vaguely aware of how tenuous our hold is on life and everything in it, and apprehensive about having any big surprises sprung on us--even of the kind described by Luke.

It's a good and reassuring story he tells, though--important to one faith but universal in its warmth and humanity. The shepherds are startled--sore afraid--at a sudden angelic appearance, but only for a moment: It turns out that it's the birth of a child that's being announced, always a sign of hope and renewal. The good tidings are followed by the appearance of a multitude of the heavenly host, words of peace on earth, and soon the King James prose has set the interior CD of Handel's "Messiah" running through your mind. But the event at the center of the story is still a simple one; the shepherds can go and see for themselves.

"The human imagination . . . does not deal readily in nonentities and undefined whooshing forces and amorphous blah-like things," we wrote on these pages some years ago in discussing a different biblical topic. "It tends to be particular and particularizing. It also tends to analogize to humankind and humankind's condition--male and female, child and elder, the filial and marital and maternal and general familial bonds among us. It paints its God with hands and feet and face."

Our fears are often of the indistinct, the undefined or--as in the current trepidation over which of our elaborate technological systems might fail us in the next few days--the simply incomprehensible. Our saving comforts are to be found, as they have been over thousands of years, in the familiar human figures who make up our lives and who expect an equal measure of comfort from us. A lot of us tend to forget this from time to time; the seasonal reminder is helpful.