Do not be afraid

December 7, 2007

We don’t ordinarily associate fear with Christmas, and yet throughout
the accounts of the Incarnation, everyone is afraid. Zechariah, Mary,
Joseph, the shepherds, even King Herod is terrified upon hearing the
news that a child will be born in Bethlehem. What’s so scary about a
babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger?

Everything, if you are Joseph.

Joseph
is a bit bewildered by the news of Mary’s pregnancy. He should not have
been the last one to know. Joseph finds himself in a precarious
position: he’s involved in Mary’s pregnancy, but not “involved” in the
normal way. Legally, the baby is his, but he is not the father. He is
betrothed to Mary, but she is not his wife. If Joseph makes public
Mary’s act of adultery, she could rightfully be stoned to death. It’s
situations like these that can keep a man awake at night.

I
imagine Joseph lying in his bed wondering where things went wrong. Life
wasn’t supposed to happen this way. He was a good man. He thought he
had chosen a capable woman for a wife. Now, everything’s a disaster.
How can he escape the incredible shame of his situation while at the
same time spare Mary’s life? It is into this nightmare that a messenger
of God comes to speak a word of grace and peace to Joseph. “Do not be
afraid.” While Joseph dreams fitfully, the angel explains that the
child Mary carries is more than a child. He is Emmanuel, “God with us.”
The uncertainties of Mary and Joseph’s future remain, but the promise
is that they are not alone in them. God is sending into the world a
savior. The child will be a sign to the world that God is near. When
Joseph awakes, his fear is gone, and he can step into his future in
faith.

I remember the time when I was most afraid. I was eight
years old, and lost in the darkness of the finished basement where my
bedroom was. I awoke needing to go to the bathroom, and the
impenetrable darkness of the basement meant that I had to feel my way
along my bedroom wall then, at the door, turn and head straight along
the wall into the bathroom. Somewhere along the way I wandered away
from the wall and found myself standing in the darkness frantically
waving my arms, hoping for something firm to hold onto. Tremendous fear
washed over me, and I could not move. I did the only thing that a child
can do—I called out for my mother who was sleeping upstairs. She came
to the top of the stairs. “It’s okay,” she reassured me, “I am with you
now.” When at last she turned on the light, there I was—standing in the
bathroom.

The holidays are the perfect reminder that our lives
don’t resemble Hallmark cards. Like Mary and Joseph, we’re part of
relationships that are complicated, messy. When our big dreams of
family harmony and happiness lie broken all around us, it’s natural to
wonder where things went wrong. It is into this darkness that the light
of Christ shines, into this fear that the angel reassures us, “Do not
be afraid.” God has sent a savior, “Emmanuel.” We are not alone.

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