A pastor I spoke with recently confessed his uncertainty about the future. Having worked in the ministry for 40 years, he wonders about what the coming years hold. After we met I thought about how so many universal fears, including fear of the unknown future, are so obvious in the Christmas story.
Take the fear of the unknown future. Imagine being a 15-year-old girl and pregnant. Though the Virgin Mary believed the angel Gabriel, her fiancé didn’t. Not at first. And what about Mary’s father and mother? And what about the neighbors? The imagination begins to wonder, doesn’t it?
I picture the young virgin, 8 months pregnant and lying in bed in Nazareth with her mother next to her, rubbing her back. Suddenly both daughter and mother are gripped with a fear common to all humans – the unknown future.
Did the same fear affect Joseph? I can only imagine. Being a good man, when Mary told Joseph about her angelic visitation and her pregnancy, he decided to leave her quietly, not exposing her to public disgrace.
But we know the story. An angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, confirming Mary’s own angelic encounter, and reassuring him. Still, it is easy for me to imagine Joseph lying in his bed, thinking of his betrothed and suddenly being gripped by yet another fear common to humankind – the fear of failure.
What if this magnificent scenario comes to nothing? I can hear the words pounding in Joseph’s head: “What if this is not real? What if all this falls apart? What if I become an outcast in Nazareth, the laughing-stock of all who see me? What if people smirk at the baby? What if I turn out to be a total failure?”
And that’s not all. Fears have a way of hanging around. Surely Joseph knew the fear of poverty was nipping at the very heels of the fear of failure. Right after Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary presented their baby boy in the temple in Jerusalem. There they dedicated their first-born son to God with an offering that peasants donated – a pair of young pigeons, not the preferred lamb many could offer.
If the fear of the unknown future, the fear of failure and the fear of poverty is not enough, just open your eyes. Three more fears common to humankind march into the Christmas story – the fear of death, the fear of bereavement, and the fear of pain.
After Jesus’ birth, Joseph had a vivid, frightening dream. An angel appeared to him, telling him to flee to Egypt immediately. So clear was the dream, Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus fled in the dead of night.
Suddenly wicked King Herod and the “Slaughter of the Innocents” in Bethlehem take central stage. Knowing that he has been tricked by the Wise Men from the East, the Christmas story tells of this furious, desperate man ordering the immediate killing of all the male children two and under in town of Bethlehem.
The Gospel of Matthew states that this slaughter fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.’”
So many people fear death and bereavement. But here in the Christmas story we love to tell are mothers throughout Bethlehem instantly thrust into mourning and wailing, mothers with broken, grieving hearts. And surely it can’t have been long before those sad hearts gave way to the universal fear of loneliness. What could be lonelier than staring into the desolate night, longing for your baby boy who was murdered in cold blood in front of your eyes? What deep pain; what overwhelming pangs of despair.
The point is that all manner of painful emotions and universal fears weave their way right into the midst of our cozy little Christmas story. Truthfully, I find it comforting knowing that I am not so different from those characters in the Christmas story long ago. Even now, my fears of the unknown future, of failure, of poverty, of bereavement, of loneliness, of sickness and pain, and of age and of death, remind me that I am much like all of humankind.
Which is one of the main reasons during Advent that I feel particularly compelled to try to quiet my heart and to hear anew the words of the angels saying, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
That announcement compels me to pray with hope: “Help me, O God, by your grace to love and fear you only. Fill my heart with cheerful courage and loving trust in you. And give me once again this Christmas season the assurance that the hopes and fears of all my years are met in you alone.”