By Greg Jarrell
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. — Luke 2:9
A hand reaches into the gut. It squeezes the stomach, twisting and turning. Legs tremble. The hands get clammy, the forehead glistens. Fear may seize our minds, but we know its appearance from our bodies. We “tense up” when we are afraid. Muscles respond by locking. The tongue gets tied. Tension stores in bone and tendon, chasing our softness and pliability. Our brains slow. They fail to comprehend all of the signals around us and all of the choices. We zone in: fight? flee? The fecund world opens to us so many more options. Fear blocks all save two.
We live with no shortage of fear. Nor are there just a few reasons we are told we should be afraid. Syrians fleeing conflict, terrorists everywhere, a world of endless war: Be afraid! A lack of armed citizens (though only of a certain type), they’re coming for your guns, the foundations are crumbling: Be afraid! A New York casino magnate with diarrhea of the mouth, a “democratic socialist,” a headstrong woman from the ruling class: Be afraid! Unrest in the cities, rising interest rates, a shrinking middle class: Be afraid!
This is the liturgy of our days. We read responsively unto death, death by a fear we are compelled to keep reinforcing. It is as though we want to be afraid, to cower at the warm blue glow of the screen broadcasting yet another end of someone’s world. That end creeps ever closer to home — the barbarians are nearly in sight of the gate. Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.
The first public announcement of the Gospel goes like this: “Do not be afraid.” Surely the shepherds had everything to be afraid of. Herod, bands of wolves, a sudden storm. Maybe Caesar Augustus, a lack of pasture or falling prices in the wool market. All were threats to their existence, the elimination of their bodies, the destruction of their families, the loss of their land. Carrying all that with them into another marginal pasture land, the appearance of a band of the heavenly host in their field would rightly be the cause for them soiling their tunics.
The angel tells them why they should not be afraid at this time, despite this strange occurrence in the countryside. The heavenly host brings good tidings of great joy. The joy has arrived in a small package just on the outskirts of town. This arrival is the one that everyone has been waiting for.
The angel in that abandoned field on that forgotten edge of a bygone empire did not eliminate fear. It soon after again gripped the bodies of the shepherds when the nearby wolves howled or when the rent on the grazing land went up. It still reached into their guts and quickened their hearts. But that one night also reoriented fear. If only for once, the shepherds left it behind. They ran with abandon to the one place they absolutely had to be. They ran towards freedom. The running itself was freedom. They had a new, better thing to be afraid of now — what if this was true and they missed out? Fleeing their old fears just once is enough to teach them — and by them I mean us — that it can be done, that fear can be turned around so as to move us to act on what matters.
What mattered on that night — what matters above all else — is to be present in the manger. What’s worth fearing is what we might miss if we keep fearing the wrong things.
The shepherds could have stayed in the fields, sore afraid. They could have continued to worry that traveling to Bethlehem was dangerous or irresponsible, that it was imprudent to take such a course of action in a threatening world. They could have continued to find comfort in their fear. Surely no one would have blamed them. But the comfort of our normal fears will not transform us. The world looks different while kneeled at the cradle. There is nowhere else to receive the gift of new eyes.
The Babe keeps showing up again, still vulnerable, still searching out hospitality, still unexpected, still needing a womb. We stay afraid of him, though, rather than wondering what we miss if we miss him. We remain afraid of each other, missing out on the gift born into each of us. But with the Christ, known in the vulnerable, in the stranger, in the presence of one another, is where we most deeply belong. At the manger, with joy and awe, is where we are finally home. We can’t reach that home with a wall built around it. Thinking we are keeping danger at bay, we will have walled ourselves out. Neither can we gain access armed to the teeth. Gentleness is his constitution, and love his amendment.
Fear can be met — perhaps can only be met — by love. As John’s first epistle teaches, perfect love casts out fear. In the presence of the Christ child, we no longer need our fear to pacify us. Rather than keeping a safe distance, we can attend to the wounds of our neighbors. We can begin to uncover the deep, secret hurts that keeping our distance from one another leaves on us.
The cost of maintaining our dread leaves us beaten down, our bodies and spirits exhausted from burdens we scarcely know we are carrying. And yet, the gift of healing is always nearby. In every act of resistance, in every practice of welcoming strangers, in every undeserved gift well received, the chorus angelorum may nearly break through to sing out the Good News, ever ancient, ever new: “Do not be afraid.”