Pondering the Gospel narratives from the Annunciation to the Presentation, it is striking how all of the principals in the story were confused, troubled and even gripped by fear. All of them. And from Heaven came the constant, soothing admonishment:
“Do not be afraid.”
Beginning with the appearance of the Angel Gabriel to the priest, Zechariah, in the Temple to announce that Zechariah’s barren wife, Elizabeth, would have a son (John the Baptist). Standing before the Altar of Incense, Gabriel appeared to this righteous priest to announce the favor of the Lord, but Zechariah was filled with fear.
“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer is heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son…”
When she received her visitation, Mary was troubled at the greeting from Gabriel, prompting him to tell her,
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God…”
Evidently, Joseph had a fairly typical reaction to the news that his betrothed was pregnant with a child not of his issue, and was contemplating putting her away quietly. In a dream came the gentle admonishment,
“Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son and you will call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
When Heaven opened onto earth in that great Theophany on the night of Jesus’ birth, with a multitude of angels singing God’s praise, the shepherds too were filled with fear, and the Angel of the Lord said to them,
“Be not afraid, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people…”
Matthew tells us that when the wise men came to Herod looking to worship the new king of the Jews, “…he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.”
Here there was no angel to admonish or console. Herod and all of Jerusalem (presumably the ruling class) were troubled, but not afraid. Herod and many of the ruling class were corrupt and did not fear God. If anything, as with all tyrants, there was the fear of retribution by the oppressed and the fear of losing status and privilege gained at the expense of the down-trodden. As Mary said to Elizabeth in her great Magnificat,
“His mercy is on those who fear Him, from generation to generation.”
All of those to whom the Angel of the Lord came were in God’s favor. Not so the wicked, such as Herod. As the Heavenly Choir sang that first Christmas,
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased.”
A far cry and a better translation from the old and inaccurately indiscriminate, “Peace on earth, good will to men.”
For the virtuous principals in the nativity story, they are sought out because of their holiness, because they worked at it. Daily virtue. Because of their response in faith, living their faith, keeping their faith, God seeks them out and asks of them a great responsibility; and because of their faith and fidelity they were afraid.
We’re really no different. We are filled with all sorts of fear. We fear failing at what God has tasked us with, of being inadequate. It is the most common fear among parents.
We fear the trials that come with holiness, knowing that holiness requires emptying ourselves completely. In a materialistic culture with forty flavors of narcissism and hedonism, working at such holiness is a full-time job.
We fear success, knowing that it becomes the new baseline against which future painful growth is measured.
We fear the uncertain future, which causes us to hang on more tightly to the present moment.
While we fear all of these things, and so much more, we need to bear in mind that we are no different in many ways from the principals in today’s story. The good and virtuous Elizabeth and Zechariah feared the judgment of men, the interpretation that her barren womb was a reproach from God. They were delivered from their great fear, from that terrible stigma in their day.
Simeon in the Temple feared death before beholding the Messiah.
Joseph feared the stigma of a wife with a child not of his issue.
Mary feared how things would happen since she knew not man.
Holy people fearing the appearance of unholiness, fearing offending God’s goodness, love, and majesty.
Then, as now, it wasn’t all up to them in some Pelagian sense. God was with them, powerfully and dramatically. For doubting the Angel, Zechariah was struck mute until John was born, and when his tongue was loosed, what issued forth was his powerful Canticle. Mary and Joseph were provided all that they would need to sustain them in Egypt. God used the Wise Men for that.
And then there was the leading of the Holy Spirit.
When all was said and done, there was Easter and the assurance that our most dread fear will be swallowed up in the same loving providence that swallowed all of Mary and Joseph’s cares and woes. Between Christmas and Easter, there was a public ministry where God the Son repeatedly admonished us to not be afraid, to trust the Father’s providence, to trust His plan for our lives.
Simple holiness is all He asks. Daily virtue.
Most of us do it already, but we look too high up and too far away to see it, missing the great goodness that is the daily fabric of our lives. Good people, such as the virtuous principals in today’s story, fear failing at their call to holiness and action.
The Herods among us fear the call to holiness itself. For them, there is no consoling, “Be not afraid.” They need to fear. They ought to fear.
For the rest of us who walk daily with God, we have no reason to fear the newest call.
He is at once with us on the road, and waiting at the end.