Whether you focus on the spiritual themes of Advent or jump ahead into Christmas celebrations, the weeks leading up to the holidays are full of waiting and excitement. While anticipating Christmas brings joyful hope, patience for other things in life is often very raw, destabilizing and scary. Especially when life is wearisome, the holiday waiting can hit a nerve of underlying or unrecognized fear. It’s easy to picture happy children marking passed days on the calendar expecting another magical December 25th, but the rest of life isn’t like that. We don’t know what, when, or even if things will happen, and the things that do end up happening might be hard or painful. Depending on the person and their circumstances these contingencies may be especially terrifying, but it’s safe to say we all face this battle in some way. At this time of the year it might feel like the chasm between happy hope and our own gaping wounds is uncrossable. Uncertainty can make celebrations feel so painful for some, and these challenges seem worse with messages all around urging happiness and merriment.
There’s no use hiding these hard feelings, and I’ve been thinking about this because this theme of nagging anxiety has been a theme in so many conversations I’ve had lately. There are varied stories, of course, but most of us respond to all sorts of pain by asking similar questions:
What if I don’t succeed in this new endeavor – grad school, starting a business or job, parenting, paying off debt, leadership responsibilities, moving?
What if the person I love rejects me and I’ve poured myself out for nothing?
What if it takes forever to recover after this awful thing?
What if things don’t get better?
The letters I-F in “what if?” give us a quick way to reveal what I Fear, and I confess a sinking familiarity with this list because I’m asking the same questions on some level every single day. I don’t think these fears are unique to anyone!
It shouldn’t be that surprising to confront growing fear while preparing for Christ’s coming. The Israelites must have mused, Our prophets seemed like they were crazy anyway, we were captured and in exile, and now we’ve had hundreds of years without a messenger from God… What if this is all a joke? Shouldn’t the Messiah be here by now? An angel had to command Joseph not to fear taking Mary as his wife. The shepherds were terrified for one of the most glorious fresh-air Angelic choir concerts of all time. And even today we’re bombarded with skepticism about Jesus’ return: Look at people like Howard Camping! Is it crazy to think this is real? Shouldn’t Jesus be back by now? Human fear permeates the story of Christmas, so why shouldn’t contemplating the mysteries of Christ’s coming bring our own everyday fears to light as well?
The Christmas story is beautiful here as it validates and releases these fears with the messages of our Advent contemplations – hope, peace, joy and love.
Weary Israel: This is the branch from Jesse, with the spirit of the fear of the Lord, which remedies all the rest of your fears.
Take courage, Joseph: These crazy and embarrassing circumstances you don’t understand fulfill my promise to bring forth salvation.
Good news, lowly Shepherds: Salvation comes for all people, including you.
Be not afraid: God is incarnate, dwelling among us that we may behold him.
Reinforcing the truth of scripture, many Christmas carols proclaim the Christ child is the antidote to fear.
Yet in thy dark street shineth the everlasting light!
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.
– “O Little Town of Bethlehem” words by Philip Brooks, 1867.
Saints before the altar bending, watching long in hope and fear,
Suddenly the Lord descending in His temple shall appear!
– “Angels from the Realms of Glory” words by James Montgomery, 1816.
Come, thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free
From our sins and fears release us, let us find our rest in thee!
– “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” words by Charles Wesley.
(Advent Starry Night by Virginia Wieringa)
And it’s interesting to note what happened after these Christmas story fears were confronted. Joseph woke up from his dream and obeyed the angel’s command. The shepherds went from their fields to find the stable in obedience to their instructions. They responded to fear by acting on what God had revealed to them, and that’s the same path we can take to push past fear. In yielding any worry, big or small, we encounter the ultimate revelation God has given us – Christ, the Word made flesh.
“Be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God!” – Isaiah 40, king james version.