It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
For many people, this is anything but “the very best time of the year.”
Even a cursory scan through the news will give you more than a few reasons why. The economy’s struggling, there’s unemployment, there’s environment issues, violence and oppression seem to be thriving, people are on edge and anger seems to be spilling out all over the place.
And that’s the big picture. Look at your community, your neighbours and friends. There are people who are hurting, grieving the loss of a life close to them, grieving the loss of a relationship or a job or a home, struggling with health issues, broken in body, mind and spirit. It’s hard to find the Christmas spirit when your own is cracked and broken.
The real story of Christmas - not the lights and trees and decorations, not the parties and the big dinners, not the gifts, not the “traditions” passed on through generations - the real story of Christmas has a special place for the world weary, the tired and the broken.
For all the warm, fuzzy comfort the traditional manger scene presents us with on Christmas Eve, the real story is hardly that.
No angel says “it’s going to be just fine, don’t worry.” Mary and Joseph don’t say “yes, this is just how I wanted it to happen!” Shepherds don’t book the night off to party with the angels and magi don’t say “this is just what we were expecting.” In fact, an overarching theme of the story isn’t comfort, happiness or celebration, it’s fear. Yes, fear.
What the angel does say, repeatedly, is “don’t be afraid.” I imagine something Mary and Joseph said to each other, repeatedly, as they began their life together with a difficult journey, is “don’t be afraid.” And I’m pretty certain that when the shepherds showed up at the manger - and later on, the magi, too - their first words were likely “don’t be afraid.” I can’t begin to guess the number of people we don’t meet because they’re in the background of the story, but I imagine many of them, living in a poor country, oppressed and afraid, could have used someone in their life who said “don’t be afraid.”
Even more so because I don’t think that’s all that was said. That’s just the first part, “don’t be afraid.” The important part’s the next bit, the important part is the whole point of the story. Don’t be afraid: you’re not alone. God is with you. And so am I.
There’s no promise that the way ahead will be easy or even that things will get better. No one says “it could be worse” or “look on the bright side.” No one says “cheer up” or “you’ll get over it.” No one says “don’t cry.”
What is promised is that the child will show love to the world, a child that, in the Gospel of Matthew’s part of the story, an angel says is the fulfillment of a prophecy of Isaiah: that the child is Immanuel, which means “God is with us” (Matt. 1:22-23).
That child will grow up to spend time with the broken, the hurting and the marginalized. He’ll show the poor they have value, he’ll remember the forgotten and show the lonely that they’re not alone. He’ll try to teach us that love is life-giving and that life’s not just about happiness and celebrations but true joy, which we can find in each other, not in things. His life will be about showing us what the story of his birth does: God is with us and God is love, love that is in every heart, not just on Christmas Day, but every day.