“Don’t be afraid,” I tell Eliza when she shows up in our room in the middle of the night, standing next to the bed with a tear in her eye. “It’s only a bad dream,” I say as I take her by the hand and lift her into bed. She usually has her blankie and pillow already in her arms and before I know it, she has snuggled down into that soft warm place between her mother and her father. The one place she knows the fears of the night can’t touch her.
Don’t be afraid the angel says to Zechariah. God will give Elizabeth a son and he will pave the way for the savior of the world. Do not be afraid the angel says to Mary. You too are to have a child, even though you have no husband, even though you have never known a man. Moreover, this child will change the world forever. Do not be afraid the angel says to Joseph. Mary is going to have a son; she has not dishonored you but has rather honored God. Take care of them both they, for they need your strength. Do not be afraid the angel tells the shepherds tending their flocks. Good news has come into the world, God has come among you, Love himself has entered the world.
Do not be afraid – it is the message of Christmas, the message inherent in the incarnation. God has been born into this world so that the Divine life might touch human life, so that we too might find a safe place to lay down our lives, a shield from our darkest fears.
Do not be afraid – I need to hear these words. As a Father and a priest, I am often called to say those words to others. However, sometimes I need someone to say them to me. Sometimes I need to know that at the end of the day when all is said and done – it is going to be o.k. I need to know that I can fall asleep and rest; I can give up my worries and let go of my apprehensions and trust that somehow in the end it will all make sense.
Don’t we all need to hear these words? Are we really that different from the children we used to be who needed a place to find a place of security to hide from the dark corners of our rooms in the middle of the night? Are we really that different from the little children we used to be who were sometimes haunted by bad dreams that seemed so real that we cried out? As adults, we surround ourselves with so many things intended to make us feel safe – car alarms, home security systems, insurance policies, good doctors, secure investments, air bags, multi-vitamins and on and on. But we are still afraid, aren’t we, at least sometimes. We are still afraid of getting sick, afraid of dying, afraid that the market will continue going down rather than up, afraid that business will slip and we will lose everything we have worked so hard to achieve, afraid most of all that something will happen to someone we love, something we cannot control, something we haven’t and can’t prepare for. Our technologies, as good as they are cannot free us from this fear. Our educations, as complete as they may be cannot protect us from the unforeseen, unplanned for event. Our wallets, as thick as they may be, cannot protect us from the phone call in the middle of the night that changes our lives forever. Modern society may have conquered many things but it has not conquered our fear or the fact that there are lots of things in this life to be frightened about.
Do not be afraid the angels say. When Eliza comes to us in the middle of the night I cannot make her bad dream go away. I cannot fix it. I can only reach out my hand and lift her up and hold her until the fear subsides, until her sense of safety outweighs what has frightened her. I know perfectly well that as she gets older, her fears will become more complex, more difficult to deal with. They will not be bad dreams, sometimes they will be bad realities and as her father I want nothing more than to protect her from these things. What if when she grows up she won’t be able to find meaning and happiness? What if when she grows up someone somewhere breaks her heart? As her parents, we fear nothing more than that this life might hurt her and we won’t be able to do anything about it.
A friend of mine told me a wonderful story about an experience he had when he was sick with the flu. He was too busy at work to be sick; he didn’t have the time to be sick, but the flu bug had gotten him good so he went home, closed himself up in his bedroom and grumpily defied anyone to come near. After a little while, as he tossed and turned and ached, he heard tiny footsteps on the stairs, which paused briefly before gently opening the bedroom door. Then as he was about to rasp, “Go away,” he heard the voice of his three-year-old son say – “Daddy, I just came to hurt with you.” The little boy crawled into bed beside him, put his arms around his neck and taught him, my friend later reflected, the true meaning of “Immanuel,” God with us.
The gift of Christmas is the gift of God. Not God high and mighty, separate and apart from this world and this life. But the gift of God as one of us, present and real and so very vulnerable lying in that manger. It is the gift of God come to calm our fears by sharing in them, the gift of God who comes to hurt with us as one of us.
Do not be afraid, Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew, look at how God cares for the birds of the air, are you not of more value than many sparrows? Do not be afraid, Jesus says to his disciples in the Gospel of John – It is I; I am here. Do not be afraid, little flock, Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Do not be afraid, Jesus says to John in the book of Revelation, for I am the first and the last, that Alpha and the Omega.
One December afternoon many years ago a group of parents stood in the lobby of a nursery school waiting to pick up their children after the last pre-Christmas session. As the youngsters ran from their lockers, each carried in his or her hands the “surprise,” the brightly wrapped package on which the class had been working for weeks. One small boy, trying to run, put on his coat, and wave to his parents all at the same time, slipped and fell. The “surprise” flew from his grasp and landed on the floor with an obvious ceramic crash. The child’s first reaction was one of stunned silence. But then he let out an inconsolable wail. His father, thinking to minimize the incident and comfort the boy, patted his head and murmured, Now that’s all right. It really doesn’t matter, son. It doesn’t matter at all. But the child’s mother, somewhat wiser in such situations, dropped to her knees on the floor, swept the boy into her arms and said, Oh, but it does matter. It does matter. It matters a great deal. And she wept with her son. (Bill Muehl, Clement Professor of Christian Methods at YDS, Why Preach? Why Listen?, p. 92).
The promise of the Incarnation, the promise of this holy night is that all our fears and all our struggles and all our yearnings matter to God. They matter to God so very much that Christ comes to be with us. God stoops to be born from a human mother, to live and die as one of us. The promise of this holy night is that we are not alone. We are not alone in our struggles and we are not alone in our fears. Christ has come – do not be afraid. Alleluia, Christ has come.