“Fear not, for behold: I bring you glad tidings of great joy.” I’ve listened to these words, sung them, shouted them from a church basement, and read them hundreds of times.
They are the great refrain of Christmas.
This year they strike me differently, however, because this year I am afraid.
I’m afraid because my parents are no longer here, which on most days is just sad but then sometimes feels like the ground under me is heaving and no longer trustworthy. I’m afraid because, walking to work last week in below-freezing temperatures, I passed through a happy flock of robins—the climate is in crisis; what used to be predictable is no longer, and we humans seem incapable of changing our behaviors. I’m afraid because the fragile democratic structures I’ve always assumed would serve the common good are threatened by big money, foreign interference, and partisan politics—and, I now know, have never served people of color fairly. I’m afraid of the anger toward difference flaring across our country. I’m afraid of this pandemic, and the next. Some nights I wake up with my heart beating furiously for no reason at all. I’m simply afraid.
“Fear not,” the angels tell the shepherds. Their glad tiding is the birth of Jesus, which, as I understand it, is a touch-point between creator and creation: Holiness pouring itself into humanity, in Bethlehem, yes, but also in my parents who died too young and in those confused robins and in our government institutions, however broken. Love is always knocking at the door, always seeking places to be born. Sometimes I’m good at welcoming it, others not—just like my country, just like humans everywhere.
“Fear not,” the angels sing, as though the biggest hindrance to love’s birth is fear. I see this more easily in others than in myself. When people are frightened that immigrants will take their jobs or when Christians feel threatened by Muslims or when white police officers are scared of Black men or when healthy people are afraid mask mandates will steal their freedom, fear quickly morphs into reactive prejudice. It’s nigh impossible to open your heart if you’re blaming someone else for your circumstances.
But myself? I’m more apt to implode, to feel the urgency of our world’s problems so intensely that I shut down. Over five million dead from Covid? Sea levels threatening the existence of whole countries? Four hundred thirty-four million guns in civilian possession in the United States? My terror makes me want to crawl back to bed. In the dead of night, what the angels ask—to face reality without fear—seems not just impossible; it seems foolhardy.
In the dead of night, what the angels ask—to face reality without fear—seems not just impossible; it seems foolhardy.
I’m reminded of the resounding words of Dame Julian, the anchoress at Norwich: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” We might dismiss Julian as Pollyanna had she not survived the ravages of the bubonic plague, which scholars now estimate wiped out 40-60 percent of England’s population, the economic devastation of the Hundred Years’ War, and the consequent bloody havoc of the Peasants’ Revolt. Historians speculate that a few of Julian’s children died, and we know Julian herself was so gravely ill at one point that she had a near-death experience. Julian was no stranger to suffering. She, too, I’m convinced, was “sore afraid,” and so her words comfort me. Somehow, I can take in radical words of assurance more readily from a flesh-and-blood woman than heavenly host.
Are the angels or Julian patting us on the head, saying, “There, there. Everything’s going to be hunky-dory”? No. They know otherwise.
Oddly, the fear the angels try to assuage is the shepherds’ terror at the angels themselves. Angels messed with the shepherds’ sense of reality. They are supernatural, and breaches to the natural order appall us—so much so that today many don’t even believe in such angels. “Don’t be afraid of this co-mingling of holiness and matter,” the angels might be saying to the shepherds, and to us. “Trust us. This moment is cause for joy.”
What Julian knew, what the angels announced, is a Christmas reality I still can barely grasp. Both drew their conviction from a mysterious source. In an oppressive, militaristic region, a needy couple far from home made space for possibility. Suffering isn’t miraculously alleviated; suffering becomes the context and means for the birth of God. “Fear not” and “All shall be well” speak to a different order of hope entirely, one that offers companionship and meaning and possibility within the awfulness of today. Black theologian Barbara Holmes calls this “crisis contemplation.” “There is little that we can do, but we can be. We can listen. We can love our neighbors, and we can host the spirit that flutters over every dawning day.”
Suffering becomes the context and means for the birth of God.
I wonder if, as I’m waking up to hard realities that I’ve previously avoided —death and environmental degradation and systemic injustice—love wants to be born through even my fear. I wonder if fear itself, if welcomed lovingly, can crack me open. I want a level of trust I’ve not yet known. The angels keep announcing the birth of love. Maybe this year I can let it in.