December 24 | “Do not be afraid”



“Do Not Be Afraid” 
Texts: Readings from Luke 1 and 2
Speaker: Joel Miller

“Do not be afraid.” 

This, we learn early in Sunday school, is what angels say when they greet people.  In Luke’s gospel, we hear it when the angel greets the elderly Zechariah, father of John the Baptizer, and again to the young Mary.   We’ll hear it again in the next reading when the angel greets the shepherds in the field, announcing that Mary’s child, Jesus, has been born in Bethlehem.

“Do not be afraid.”

In our mind’s eye we might imagine angels as imposing figures, appearing out of nowhere, startling, the cause of the very fear they seek to relieve through this greeting.  This may very well be the case.

But I have another theory, another proposal for the relationship between angels and fear.  And this is it: When we, people, are found by an angel – or to use a more literal translation, a messenger – When we are most in need of being found, and given a message, is when we are living in a state of fear.  The role of the messenger is not to scare us, then assure us they’re on our side, then bring whatever message they have for us.  The primary role of the angel, the message itself, is to call us out of our fearful orientation to the world, into another, more spacious way of being.

Our fear precedes the angel’s appearance.  And that’s where they start.  By naming our fear we may not even have been aware of.  

I can’t prove this theory, but I can reflect a bit on the prevalence of fear and how it shows up in our lives.

Fear is, perhaps counterintuitively, a gift.  When we experience fear it is our body’s way of alerting us to danger.  We get a rush that enables us to react quickly, run fast, lift something heavy, whatever it is we need to do to survive the moment.  Fear is our brain’s way of telling the rest of our body – I really want stay alive, and I’m going to help you immediately. 

We can even map this now in the amygdala part of the brain, and much has been written about the fight or flight or freeze reactions.  Trauma experts have actually named more than just these three responses.  There is also fawn – show affection toward the one threatening you as a strategy for temporary safety.  There is fine – deny anything is actually wrong.  It’s fine, I’m fine.  There is faint –  We lose consciousness on the spot.  We’re like, whatever happens next, I don’t want to remember it. 

And because the world isn’t quite as orderly as everything being explained through alliteration –the primary responses to fear are fight, flight, freeze, fawn, fine, and faint — there is another one: annihilate.  Annihilate goes beyond the fight response with the blind rush to utterly destroy the threat.

Fear can be a gift.  But here’s the tricky thing about fear and its offspring, trauma.      

Fear and trauma lodge themselves in our body, and linger even after the threat is gone, and we can get stuck.  And our orientation to the world gets stuck in these survival responses.  And it effects everything: Our thoughts, our relationships, even whole nations and international politics. 

As anyone who has done trauma work knows, getting unstuck involves a lot more than simply someone telling you that you should.  You heard what the angel said.  Do not be afraid.  It isn’t quite that simple.

I do, however, find it instructive that the birth of Jesus is framed, before and after, with these very words.  I wonder what we can learn by seeing this story as a Divine response to our human stuckness in the fear responses.
Luke chapter 2 begins by setting Jesus’ birth in the largest context the writer can imagine.  “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” 

It’s a bit of hyperbole, “all the world,” but it was all the Roman world, and that was a pretty good chunk of it.  Caesar Augustus has the kind of power where one decree can cause whole populations to shift, family lines and clans travel back to ancestral homelands.  And a census wasn’t about updating the demographic numbers on the average family size and education level of Palestinian Jews.  It was about taxes and military conscription.  It was about control. 

In other words, it was a time, like many times, when there was much to be afraid of.  When one’s life was caught up in a matrix of large and powerful forces – decrees, forced migration, rulers vying for power.  As an unwed pregnant young woman Mary had her own reasons for fear.  Mere stigma was almost a best case scenario.  Surviving childbirth wasn’t a given.  Joseph risks his own honor by accompanying her and partnering with her in the raising of this child.

Christian theologians have spoken of the birth of Jesus as incarnation.  It means enfleshment, or embodiment.  It means the Divine presence resides in a human body.  Resides in all human bodies, scripture suggests.  These same bodies where fear and trauma lodge themselves. 

A newborn body, and an angel’s messages to not be afraid are the opening scenes of the story of Jesus’ life. 

The traditional theme for this fourth Sunday of Advent – following Hope, Peace, and Joy – is Love. 

It makes sense for love to be the culmination of our Advent expectancy.  What else describes the wordless rush one feels in holding a newborn child?  Love.  And what will this newborn child, when he has grown, name as the most important commandment in all of Scripture.  Love God with all your being, and Love your neighbor as yourself.  The New Testament letter of 1 John puts love and fear right alongside each other. “The is no fear in love,” it says, “for perfect love drives out fear.”

Fear has its list of alliterated responses: fight, flight, freeze, fawn, fine, faint, annihilate.  Here’s the beginning of an alternative list for love: laugh, listen, lament, liberate, lavish, luminate, and learn.  And Yes, I did end up using Google for those last couple, but No, I did not ask Chap GPT.         

Fear can cause us to throw up walls to keep out foreigners and migrants, but the child Jesus, love incarnate, was himself a refugee, fleeing the murderous Herod, welcomed by Egypt until it was safe for him to return home.

Fear can keep us from doubting our own self-worth, yet when a bleeding woman in a crowd risked rebuke by reaching out to touch Jesus’ cloak, he told her that her faith had made her well, and to go in peace, healed and whole.  

And sometimes fear can keep us safe.  Like when the disciples met behind locked doors for fear that the Judeans and Romans would do to them what they did to Jesus.  And Jesus appears to them there, greets them with “Peace be with you,” and breathes the Holy Spirit on them there in the safety of that locked room.  

There is no fear in love, for perfect love drives out fear.

In our Christmas celebration, I invite us to consider that the love of God we experience through Jesus is a doorway into an entirely different way of orienting ourselves in this world.  A way that lodges itself deep in our bodies, a love that incarnates itself through us, causing us to act in ways surprising perhaps even to ourselves.  As we partner with Mary and Joseph in birthing Christ in our world.  As we hear the voices of messengers – Do not be afraid.  As we celebrate the Christmas miracle of incarnation.