It occurred to me, watching our children’s Christmas play this year, that there is a lot of fear in the Christmas story. Or, at least, there isn’t, and perhaps that’s what we ought to be wondering about.
I should explain, first of all, that the play wasn’t scary, nor were the children afraid. The play picks up on the common thread which is the role angels play throughout the Christmas story, messengers of news and instructions for the main characters.
The expression on Mary’s face when she meets Gabriel, for example, was priceless. More so, when she finds out that she’s going to have a baby. But each time, Gabriel tells her not to be afraid and then she’s, well, not.
And that’s the pattern of these angelic moments throughout the story. An angel appears to Mary and she’s afraid - it’s an angel, after all - and the angel says “don’t be afraid,” and she’s not. The angel says she’ll have a baby. She’s afraid, but the angel says don’t be afraid, it will be God’s son. So she’s not. (Luke 1:26-38)
Joseph needs the visit of an angel to convince him to marry the now-pregnant Mary. The angel says don’t be afraid to marry Mary and raise her son as your own. And he’s not. (Matthew 1:18-25)
An angel appears to shepherds and says “don’t be afraid.” And they’re not. A whole army of angels appears and they don’t run away. No, they wait until the angels are gone, they say “let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us” and “they went with haste.” (Luke 2:8-18)
After the magi follow the star (a daunting commitment to begin with), they are “warned in a dream” to return home another way to avoid Herod. Probably by angel who said you’ll be fine, don’t be afraid. And they’re not. (Matthew 2:12)
Then an angel warns Joseph to take the family to Egypt to escape Herod. You’ll be fine, the angel says, don’t be afraid. And they’re not. (Matthew 2:13-14)
Oh, I know what you’re thinking: I’m interpreting the story that way. Yes, I am.
I’m not suggesting that any of these moments were easy. Far from it. I bet the social complications of Mary and Joseph’s relationship were challenging, to say the least. The journey to Bethlehem must have been hard and, in it’s own way, scary. I hardly think the birth of a baby in a barn or stable, whether it was a cave or a building, was anything less than difficult. And the magi, well, you can’t tell me they weren’t at least surprised by how and where they found Jesus and a little bit anxious about getting away from the “disturbed” Herod. No, I doubt that night was the calm, serene pastoral scene we see in nativity sets and on Christmas cards, and hear about in carols that describe a night so still and a “no crying he makes” baby.
And yet. Maybe there’s a good reason to hear the story that way.
Presented with the unknown, the unfamiliar and the uncomfortable, each character responds as humans would, with fear. Is it just the angel’s words, “fear not,” that change that, or is it something else?
Emmanuel. When the angel visits Joseph and tells him not to be afraid to marry Mary, Matthew proclaims it to be the fulfillment of Isaiah’s 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 and embrace it with a certainty that puts an end to fear. Look at Mary and the shepherds. Luke says that their response isn’t just to actively engage what the angel tells them, but to then praise and glorify God for it happening.
And what’s happening is that power of love creating a new thing. In Jesus, God’s presence will gain human expression. The Word will be made flesh, John writes, and we will be able to see, in real terms, what it means to live into the life-giving relationship to which we are born.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that everyone goes away from this story to have a Merry Christmas and a holly, jolly good time. But deeper than the merry is joy and deeper still than the holly jolly is love.
There are not better words this Christmas: “fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”