Most Bible stories of angel appearances have the angel’s first words be, “Fear not” or a similar proclamation. Ever wonder why? Aside from the obvious that being visited by a divine messenger would be up there on terrifying scale, why are these words consistently flowing from the mouths of angels? I jokingly (sort of) say that if an angel shows up in my life and says, “Fear not,” my response is TOO FREAKING LATE! I’ve already hyperventilated and passed out cold. This would be an appropriate response to angels. They tell the person not to be afraid and then deliver news of divine proportions.
This is particularly true of the angels in the Christmas story as we know it. There’s the infamous encounter between Gabriel and Mary. Gabriel shows up out of the proverbial nowhere and tells Mary not to be afraid. Why should she not continue quaking in her sandals? Well, she has found favor with God. If that isn’t scary news, what is? I mean we all want God to pay attention to us, but do we really want God’s full attention? Mary ended up bringing God into the world in a whole new, reality-shifting kind of way. I’m betting she was afraid from the moment Gabriel showed up in her life until maybe sometime after the Resurrection. Or maybe she was just afraid on some level all the time.
Then, of course, there is Joseph. He was likely an innocent in this. His family had probably arranged for his marriage to Mary many years before, maybe even as early as Mary’s birth. He was willing to go along. Well, at least until he heard that she was pregnant and he wasn’t the one responsible. Even then, he didn’t want Mary to be stoned to death or left destitute, so he was willing to quietly, privately divorce her. Enter the nameless angel of the Lord. (My money’s on Gabriel, but we don’t know which angel it was.) This angel appears in a dream and starts off with, “Fear not…” Even in dreams angels showing up cause heart palpitations. While Joseph’s dream self is staring at the divine visitor in awestruck disbelief, the angel continues. “Do not be afraid to take Mary for your wife.” Joseph continues to stare. Wait for it. “The child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” Joseph shakes his head in disbelief and his fear is likely unabated.
These are just two examples of angels showing up and saying, “Fear not.” Yes, they are likely scary beings in their own right. Add in that they bring divine news, and the fear factor ticks up a few notches. Oh, and that divine news is going to shift your reality (and possibly the reality of the world) so, for the love of God, keep breathing. Aside from this, I wonder if these stories address fear first because we finite, little humans live in constant fear.
Think about it. We all live with various fears and varying degrees of fearfulness. We are afraid of not having enough or being enough. We are afraid of being too much like everyone else and of being too different from everyone else. We are afraid our country is falling apart and we are afraid to reach from something different. We are afraid that there is no God and we are afraid that there is. We are afraid that the planet is dying and we afraid to make the changes necessary to save it. We are afraid of the things that hurt us in the past and we afraid of what the future will bring. We are afraid of dying, and afraid of being fully alive. If we pay too much attention to these fears, we will be overwhelmed in short order without an angel showing up with (good) news. It’s really not a surprise that a messenger from God would start a conversation with any human saying, “Fear not.”
It’s important to note that the conversation doesn’t end there, though. Fear not because God is going to do a new thing, starting with you. Fear not because God is the opposite of fear. God is forever cracking open, breaking into, human fear. Jesus didn’t show up in some terrifyingly awesome divine spectacle. Jesus showed up in an infant (okay, so babies are terrifyingly awesome divine spectacles, but you know what I mean), a helpless, fragile human totally dependent on other human beings to care for him. Think about that. God comes into the world through angels, babies, and a myriad of other ways to soothe our self-protective fears, or at least to remind us that God is not in our fears.
“Fear not,” said the angel to Mary, to Joseph, to countless others, and to you and me. Do not be afraid to bring Love into the world because that’s the only way to save the world. Do not be afraid of new and life-changing things because God is in those very things. Imagine how your life would change if you heard those angelic words addressed to you. Imagine how the world would change right now if everyone heard those divine words addressed to them. Imagine how everything were different if everyone was unafraid to Love.
RCL – Year A – Fourth Sunday of Advent – December 22, 2019
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19