Michelle Martin

Fear not

Sunday, December 25, 2016

When it comes to warm-and-fuzzy Gospel stories, it’s hard to beat the Christmas story. There’s cute animals, rugged shepherds, majestic wise men, glorious angels. There’s light from a star, and, best of all, a new baby. Who doesn’t love a new baby?

At least, that’s how it’s played over and over again in countless church and school Nativity pageants and Christmas plays. It’s a story appropriate for kindergartners dressed in bathrobes and bedsheets, with a baby doll to stand in for Jesus. Or if they are very, very lucky, someone’s younger sibling.

And then they can go home and rearrange the figures in their Nativity sets, now setting the magi further away, then moving the donkey closer to get a better look at Jesus.

And yet. In the two Gospels that talk about the birth of Jesus and what led up to it, three times angels say, “Do not be afraid.” It happens first in Luke’s Gospel, at the annunciation, then in Matthew, when an angel appears to Joseph in a dream to explain what’s happening and finally again in Luke, when the angel appears to the shepherds.

Perhaps that is simply how angels start any communication with humans; angels might be beautiful human-like creatures with wings in the popular imagination, but scriptural descriptions are fearsome.

But perhaps it was because, as warm and comforting as we like to make it, there was plenty to fear for the holy family and those who surrounded them. Without the support of Joseph, Mary faced being an unwed mother in a society that could punish that with death. Joseph covered up her perceived crime, and agreed to raise a child that was not his.

In Luke’s version, at least, both of them faced an arduous journey at a dangerous time for Mary. Childbirth carries risks to mother and baby, and giving birth in a stable is not the best of circumstances for anyone. To be bringing this improbable child into a world with harsh political and religious divisions and to have angels proclaiming he was the Messiah, well, that wasn’t exactly the best way to lay low.

Let’s not forget that the next episode in Matthew’s Gospel is the slaughter of the innocents, which prefigures the death of Jesus more than 30 years later.

Advent is a time of hope, hope for the birth of the baby Jesus and for the kingdom to come, but the anticipated events signify huge shifts in salvation history. Such changes always come with turmoil. Change can be good, necessary even, but it is rarely easy.

So this Christmas, listen to the angels and do not be afraid. Look at the baby in the manger in hope and in awe, never forgetting that while the baby — the Son of God — is our savior, it wasn’t easy.

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