Thursday 21 December 2023

Facing Our Fear

In a world so full of fear, can there be anything better than this story we tell at Christmas?

This story of Jesus’ birth that we compile from the gospels of Luke and Matthew, with some insights from the gospel of John, is full of fear. At least, it ought to be, judging by the number of times we hear “don’t be afraid.”

And yet, it doesn’t feel like it.

Any reasonable person would see the challenges here. Angels? However they appear, in daylight or in dreams, whatever you imagine them to be, I don’t think that any of us would readily accept the experience of any of the characters in the story as ordinary and easily explained. Then there’s the news they bring. 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 its 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. 

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.

No. And I don’t think it was just the angels who said “don’t be afraid,” either. I imagine all the characters in the story, at one time or another, encouraging each other with those words. “Don’t be afraid.” There’s lots to fear.

And yet, it doesn’t feel like it.

I think it’s because Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the magi and all of the other characters we can imagine to be in the story - including ourselves - know that it’s more than just the words, it’s an invitation to be part of what God is doing.

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 hope that engages fear, inspires our actions and moves us to love. 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, the divine presence will be demonstrated in 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 no better words this Christmas: “don’t be afraid: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”