Many churches have a creche or Christmas Crib or nativity or manger scene at Christmas time. By whatever name we call it, it represents the fullness of the story we tell. Each figure has their own story but when we put them together they create a lovely pastoral moment, that beautiful, gentle moment when Jesus is born in Bethlehem. We’ll gather there on Christmas Eve, candles in hand and sing “Silent Night.” Like the characters in the story, our journey there may have been anything but calm and bright. But, for a brief moment, we can set aside other things and just rest with Jesus in the manger.
That’s a good opportunity to reflect on the characters that are gathered there. The newborn Jesus is there in the manger, of course, with Mary and Joseph. There might be some animals that you’d find in a stable or barn, like sheep, goats, cattle, chickens - the list of our imagination likely far outstrips the reality of first century Judea. There would be shepherds, who heard the news from the angels. They might have brought some sheep. You’ll likely see magi, with a camel or two, though their story happened later than that night. But it’s good to include them anyway, they sure seem to belong there. If your creche is particularly elaborate, you might have an extra character or two, like an innkeeper peering around the corner, or a couple of curious towns folk. There should be a star and maybe even an angel.
Ah yes, an angel. It’s the one moment in the story where there’s no mention of one being there. But you know they were. Without angels, there’d be no story.
An angel visits Mary. An angel reassures Joseph. An angel (and a host of angels) shares the news with the shepherds and sends them to the stable. An angel helped the magi get home safely after they saw Jesus. An angel helped the family escape Herod and return home. Angels are everywhere else in the story and you can bet the manger was surrounded by them.
Angels bring the most important message of the story. That’s not the divine pregnancy or the good news of the birth or even protection from danger. It’s this wisdom: don’t be afraid.
There’s no doubt that the sudden appearance of an angel - however you might imagine that to happen - inspires fear in the earthbound characters of the story. Their message likely did, too, even if it was also one of hope or joy. The story is full of challenges. There’s a lot that’s unexpected, unlikely and uncomfortable.
But each time the angel says “don’t be afraid,” the characters find a way to not be afraid. At least, they find a way forward. I suspect they’re still anxious and afraid, but they know something we could really use today.
Emmanuel. When the angel visits Joseph and tells him not to be afraid to marry Mary, Matthew proclaims it to be the fulfillment of a prophecy: “‘look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us’” (Matt. 1:23).
God is with us. The spirit of love and creation, the life-giving presence of God, has been in all things since the beginning. Perhaps in the angel’s invitation to not be afraid is the invitation to welcome God’s love again, and embrace it, so that, whatever lies ahead, we know we don’t go there alone.