“Do not be afraid”
In less than a month, we will once again celebrate the Christmas story as a spiritual community. Stories actually. Plural. Despite the fact that most Christmas pageants, the wider culture, and many Christians recall only a single story with shepherds, angels, wise men and a manger, there are actually two markedly different stories about Jesus’ birth - one in the Gospel of Matthew and the other in the Gospel of Luke. For example, there are shepherds and a manger in Luke, but no wise men. In Matthew, it’s the reverse.
There is however, one essential detail they do have in common In both Christmas stories, the first words spoken by any character are the same: “Do not be afraid”. In Matthew’s Gospel, an angel speaks those words to Joseph in reference to the coming birth of Jesus. In Luke, they are spoken by an angel to Zechariah in reference to the coming birth of John the Baptist. And John’s expected birth is actually the beginning of the Christmas story for Luke. But the words are the same: “Do not be afraid”.
Yet as we enter the 2018 Advent and Christmas season, fear seems to be everywhere and growing. As Martha Nussbaum, perhaps the most prominent American moral philosopher of our time puts it in her latest book, The Monarchy of Fear, fear has “suffused” our current society due to a combination of extreme polarization and the forces of automation, outsourcing of jobs, and globalization, which have left many feeling powerless.
But still, the very first words God speaks to us through angels - a word which means “messengers” -are “Do not be afraid”. And the Jesus who is born as the central act of the Christmas story will, as an adult, say “Do not be afraid” to those with him -to us -more than anything else.
If fear though, is, as science understands it, a natural part of the human condition, how do we “not be afraid”? My sense is that what first God and then Jesus are really pointing to with those words has much less to do with the emotion and much more with the response. As Nussbaum discusses, to respond to fear with determination to thoughtfully participate in needed change is helpful; to respond with the desire to make others suffer is not. That was the way Jesus responded to and called those in his time to respond to the things they feared. It is the way he and the God who sent him at Christmas call us to respond to what we fear.
Advent and Christmas Blessings,