When Zechariah, the soon-to-be father of St. John the Baptist, enters the holy place in the old temple to pray, an angel of the Lord appears to him in all his glory. Zechariah is frightened, of course, as you or I would certainly be.
"Do not be afraid!" the angel says to him.
Likewise, when the Angel Gabriel appears to a bewildered young Mary, he reassures her with identical words: "Do not be afraid!"
Not long after, St. Luke tells us, "there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, "Do not be afraid!"
I have not counted them myself, but I have read that one of the most oft-repeated phrases in the Bible are these very words: "Do not be afraid," "Be not afraid" or similar reassurances.
What wonderfully comforting words by a God who repeats them over and over again throughout history — and especially in the Christmas story — a gift that is just as precious today as it was more than 2,000 years ago. For what gift could be more valuable than hope, or light at the end of all the dark tunnels we enter into in our lives? What a comfort it is to know we have a divine parent who says, "Trust me. I will take care of you. I am here for you. I love you."
And trust we must. These are difficult, challenging times for so many people, and can be quite frightening in the sheer rapidity of change we experience in society, from a diminishing public civility and increasing polarization, to technology that seems so difficult to keep up with, to a steady bombardment of depressing news.
As I write this, our president is trying to decide whether to send thousands upon thousands of more young men and women to Afghanistan, even as tragic violence and loss of life continues there and in Iraq. The fight against potential terrorism has become, sadly, a part of our lives. The recent economic news, while more hopeful than a few months ago, shows a staggering number of people unemployed. I know that many a family will have a very lean holiday this year. The news reports bring images of unspeakable tragedy at Fort Hood and what seems a never-ending spiral of violence on the streets of our own community. There is much worry and tragic deaths of many people, especially children, because of swine flu.
It can be so very overwhelming. Amidst it all, we can slip away from God’s outstretched hand. We can become so afraid we lose hope. We can forget that there is so much more good in the world than bad.
And so let us all unwrap once again God’s Christmas gift to us and try on God’s comfort, love and reassurance. Let’s say those words to ourselves every day: "Do not be afraid." Let’s both count and cherish all that is good and lovely in our lives.
I like to think of Mary and Joseph, who faced unimaginable terror and uncertainty in the travails of Mary’s pregnancy and the harsh realties of Roman occupation, gazing upon the face of their newborn son that first Christmas.
What a sense of relief, well-being and astonishment at God’s deliverance they must have felt! What faith they must have had to believe that the fragile little boy in the makeshift cradle, born into poverty, would grow up to change the world and deliver humanity.
Were they uncertain about the future? Surely. Would they never experience problems or tragedy or fear again? We know that was not the case.
Yes, the gift they received that first Christmas was not only a son and a Savior, but the gift of hope and faith, the sum of which should be courage.
Jesus was born to deliver us from evil. Jesus was born to free us from not only the sins of humankind but from fear. Jesus was born to give us courage.
May the words "Do not be afraid" resonate in you every single day. May you have hope, peace and courage always, and may you have a wonderful Christmas!
Peace to all.