But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” – Luke 2:10
Beneath the dissonant, thrumming symphony of contemporary culture, I think the creeping bass line is fear.
I’m not sure if this was true a few years ago, but I think it’s true now.
I think faces look haunted. I think pleasures are sought to drown out a vague, unbearable darkness. I think eyes dart, a little, in a way reminiscent of the hunted animal. There is danger, but where is it lurking? Why do I feel so on edge? When is the next shoe going to drop?
Faith in the U.S. political system is abysmally low. Indeed, faith in “institutions,” in general, is faltering. Internet discourse, with its whiplash-quick cycles of fame and ignominy, can be profoundly isolating and destabilizing. My own college students seem more burdened, more troubled, with every passing year. Their activist, righteous anger at “the system” (par for the course for collegians over the last few decades) seems to give way, more and more, to a kind of resigned defeat. Everything sucks. Just huddle up and try to survive. Don’t invest too much in anything, or it will hurt you. There are monsters everywhere.
In the book of Luke, whose early chapters Christians read every Christmas (and whose verses are recited in the Charlie Brown Christmas Special), angels twice say to the cowering faithful: “Do not be afraid.” First, the angel Gabriel says to the Virgin Mary: “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God” (Luke 1:30). Then an angel addresses shepherds in the fields: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy.” In both cases, God sent his messengers to highly vulnerable parties: an unwed young woman alone in her room; humble night laborers in the chilly dark. Indeed, this is the style of our God – to privilege the meek and lowly of heart.
Of course, when the angels of the Gospel said “Do not be afraid” to Mary and the shepherds, they meant “Do not be afraid of us.” Angels are spiritual beings of strange, unsettling power, speaking with destabilizing, vertiginous, diamond-sharp logic. Where they are, the axis of the world seems to shift. The Old Testament prophets, together with the author of Revelation, are exceedingly awed and even “floored” by angels. (The prophet Isaiah famously cried, “Woe to me!”1). The ancient mystics often expressed a similar astonishment and fear, usually in the face of a “bright light.” In his Space Trilogy, C.S. Lewis put a sci-fi spin on this phenomenon. His angels, described as luminous pillars, seem to create a new center of gravity wherever they appear – and with it, an experience of vertigo. This is because their spiritual orientation is to the truest “True North,” while humankind’s orientation is definitely not. In their righteous and blazing presence, Lewis’s angels show humans how “off-kilter” the world really is.
But there is fear, and then there is fear. There is holy fear, which cleanses, humbles and expands, and then there is that sheer, dark terror that swells in the face of disaster and hate. The fear I sense today is, most of the time, in the latter category. The world feels angry, misfortunes abound, and there is little awareness of God’s loving providence. Even people of faith seem to steel themselves, often, against failure, disappointment, and dissolution: declining church attendance; unexpected, tragic illness; acidic contentiousness in the public square; the seeping away of hope.
Mary and the shepherds might have felt the same way. At that time, Israel was ruled by the brutal Herod Antipas – an unscrupulous schemer and murderer who worked against the best interests of his people. More broadly, the Jews were under the heel of Rome, whose emperor would eventually destroy the Temple and scatter the faithful. Meanwhile, Mary would find herself in the precarious role of unwed mother – a condition that could have resulted in a public execution. Surely, when the angels said “Do not be afraid,” they meant it comprehensively, completely, multifariously. They meant not only, “Do not be afraid of us,” but “Do not be afraid of the cruel, dark world.” The Lord, they affirmed, was present and watching. And more than that, He was participating. He was coming to share Himself and dwell with those who needed Him most.
In Seattle, Washington, where I live, the sun sets around 4:30 pm in the winter. Ours is truly a dark world, here in the Pacific Northwest. My city of Seattle is also one of the most unchurched in the United States, and, as a “boom town” (first lumber, then gold, then tech), one of the most fluctuating and disconnected. Community is hard to build in a place like this one, when people come, cash in, and go, all in the span of a few years. Though I am surrounded by wealth in this tech capital, I am also surrounded by corrosive loneliness. Digital distractions and trendy restaurants can’t “paper over” the angst for long. Everywhere around me, outward confidence masks internal anxiety. My city – and my students! – need the message of the angels in what feels like a dark winter of the heart.
Do not be afraid, the angels said to our faithful ancestors. Do not be afraid of violence and persecution that makes one doubt the existence of the good. Do not be afraid of a dark, silent heaven that looms like a void. Look instead at that bright light, that pinprick, right over the stable, that shows a heaven beyond, portending the coming of a Lord. Fix your eyes on this tiniest and most delicate of hopes. For God is pleased to show His glory by the most improbable – and thus the most virtuosic – of means. Do not be afraid, for His plans were anciently set, and they have unfolded, beautiful and unhindered, from the foundation of the world.
The Christian faith, or at least certain of its trappings, seems distasteful and off-limits to many people today – many people who, indeed, harbor a dark fear in their hearts. They hesitate to consider the Christian Gospel – the good news! – though it would truly give them peace if they could know its meaning. But our God is endlessly creative, and his angels are His ingenious, artful messengers, who speak and re-speak God’s truth and beauty with always-expanding originality. In every age, they seed the human imagination with new metaphors and fresh glories through which God may be known. Their song never ends.
This Christmas, may we listen to the angels at our shoulders, their spiritual voices like golden trumpets, exhorting us to put off the fear of doubt and clothe ourselves with joy. It is the joy of the Incarnation, when God irrupted into our world, setting the plumbline of history and the axis of the Universe! They sing the joy of a God who conquered death, and who shares His immortal yoke so that our deaths might join with His as portals to glory. May we accept His trustworthy lordship and the gentle martyrdoms He has planned for us. Because of Him, we can all, one day, sing with the angels.