In the gospel of Matthew, an Angel comes to Joseph in a dream, saying “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife” (Mt 1:20). In the gospel of Luke, angels arrive three times. One comes to Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, saying: “Do not be afraid; your prayer has been heard” (Lk 1:13). One comes to Mary, saying: “Do not be afraid; you have found favor with God” (Lk 1:30). One comes to the shepherds, watching their flocks at night: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” (Lk 2:10).
The people in these stories are full of fear. They are afraid that God has abandoned them in their time of need. They are afraid of social rejection because of an unplanned pregnancy. They are afraid of the angels, and the shining glory of God.
But the angels of Advent say “do not be afraid” and the prophet Isaiah joins in the chorus: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might… with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (Is 12:3)
Do not be afraid. It’s a message we need in this season, because there is plenty to be afraid of. What are you afraid of?
We have personal fears: loss, loneliness, aging, death, cancer, addiction, mental illness. We have collective fears: fear of the stranger and the refugee and fear of what our character will become if we fail to welcome them; fear of gun violence and the gun lobby; fear of the insidious power of institutionalized racism; fears about the integrity of those who are campaigning to become our highest ranking public servant; fears about climate change.
It’s not wrong to be afraid. We’re afraid because we’re paying attention. Fear might actually be a sign of sanity. It’s a sign that our minds are still willing to notice, our hearts are still willing to care.
We’re afraid because we’re paying attention. So what do we do with this Advent refrain, “Do not be afraid”?
I’ll tell you one thing that won’t help calm our fears: fake cheer. That stuff is toxic.
Fake cheer is offered year-round. “Put a smile on your face! Things will get better. There’s a silver lining to every cloud.” Or, worse, the religious version: “God never gives you more than you can handle. When God closes a door, he always opens a window. God needed another angel.” That stuff’s not in the bible, folks, or any other religious source of good repute.
Fake cheer is offered year-round, but we get a really heavy dose of it in December. Jarringly cheerful Secular Christmas songs are cranked up on every radio station, in every store. Alcohol and sugar are so plentiful it’s easy to end up in oblivion instead of enjoyment. The expense and expanse of brightly wrapped gifts can overshadow any pleasure in giving and receiving. And the people we see in movies, on Christmas cards, and in commercials are so ecstatically happy or peacefully perfect they’re bound to make us unsatisfied with whatever good we’ve got.
Fake cheer. It’s everywhere, especially right now, and it’s of no help.
Lest you think I am a total Grinch, however, let me suggest that this Advent season (which I love!) does offer us some more positive options for overcoming fear.
If we listen to the prophets, and to Mary and her magnificat, that marvelous song she sings in the gospel of Luke, we’re reminded that God’s good news in this season has to do with dramatic social change. None of us can achieve that by ourselves, of course, but we can try to be a part of it. Like Mary, we can say “yes” to being magnified by God.
So if you feel fearful this season, choose one thing to do to make a positive change. One thing to right the wrong you see. Contact your elected official about gun violence or climate change, even if they agree with you, to let them know just how urgent you think the issue is. Put up a sign or start a conversation about why it matters to say that Black Lives Matter. Cook a meal, or do a load of laundry, or send a check or write a word of love to someone who needs it.
Add at least one thing on your holiday to-do list a world-righting, God-magnifying item.
If you’re fearful, start with action. And follow it up with joy.
You remember what the angels said: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” You remember the words of Isaiah: “with joy we will draw water from the wells of salvation.”
Joy is not the same as fake cheer. It doesn’t pretend that nothing is wrong. It’s not always loud. It’s almost never perfect. It doesn’t require unhealthy eating or heavy drinking.
Joy is a letting go, a release and a relief, an opening up and a grounding down. Joy is belly laughter and foolishness, friendship and forgiveness, reclamation and resurrection. And Joy, at the time of Jesus’ birth and now, is an act of fierce defiance in a fearmongering world.
Do not be afraid. God arrives in Advent to tell us again and again, Do not be afraid. Which means, I think: do not be overcome by your fears. Do not let those fears control you, steal your life, steal your soul. Let God’s love be magnified in what you do: at least one thing to right the world. Let God’s saving good news release you into joy – if only for a moment.
Emmanuel, God-with-us, we are afraid. May your love transform our fears into acts of courageous hope. May your good news lead us to moments of joy. May we trust, and not be afraid, for you are our strength and our might. Amen.