By John Carroll
In reading through the Christmas stories this year, the words about fear and being afraid have jumped out at me. Fear is a player in the story of Zechariah, Joseph, Mary, the shepherds and King Herod with the Magi. Even all of Jerusalem is said to be afraid alongside Herod in the story of the Magi. I guess it makes sense. If something as holy as an angel of God were to come visit me or if I were to see portents in the sky, I might be a little afraid, too.
But I think there is a deeper truth in all of these stories than just the awe and fear experienced before that which is holy. Zechariah, Joseph, Mary and the shepherds all receive the encouragement to not be afraid, and each one of them is able to open themselves, eventually, to the new work that God is doing in them and through them. The very opposite is the case with Herod. He is never given the encouragement to not fear. Fear rules his attitude and his actions in the world, and he not only closes himself to the work of God around him, but he works actively against it. And all of Jerusalem, who is caught in fear alongside Herod, stands by in silence and inactivity as Herod’s violence is acted out upon their own neighbors. Perhaps our Christmas scriptures are trying to teach us that fear is the antithesis to faith and trust and that fear is what closes us to the work of God.
Fear is a natural part of our instinctual make-up. It is kind of like the anti-virus program on our computers. It alerts us when something potentially dangerous is coming our way and cordons it off so that we can then use our other faculties of discernment, wisdom, reason and compassion to make a good decision moving forward. But we all know that our anti-virus programs alert us to perfectly safe programs and actions. So does our fear — it did so for all of the people in our Christmas narratives. Fear’s rightful place is to be an alerting pause button that activates and engages our other faculties. Fear’s wrongful place, and dangerous place, is to be our operating system, controlling all of our other faculties and making all of our decisions for us.
In a day and age when fear seems to be ruling much of our public discourse from all sectors— conservative, moderate and liberal — and in a day and age when churches are tempted to cave into the weightiness of fear due to cultural changes around us — may we be people of faith who remain open to what God would do in us and through us for the salvation of the world.