A few years ago one of my children was very worried about something, so I suggested that we pray together about it.
We had talked a few times about how often the Bible says ‘Do not be afraid’ so we closed our eyes and I started the prayer by saying something like:
‘Dear God, we know you tell us not to worry and not to be afraid…’
At this point he opened his eyes and interrupted me:
“Err…could you stop there. No offence…but this is really not helping. It’s just making me feel worse. Now I feel bad for worrying as well.”
Everyone has many things that they can worry about – whether its money, work, family or tricky relationships. When I became a parent it hugely expanded the scope and range of things I could be fearful of. You could say that anxiety is the default setting for modern parenting.
For me, I think my fears operate like cabs on a taxi rank. There is always an issue which sits at the head of the anxiety queue. I am always relieved when it gets dealt with or resolved but you just know that another issue or problem will be along in a minute to take its place.
People deal with worries and fears in different ways – some people want to share and verbalise them with anyone who’ll listen. Others deal with them more privately. Either way, managing our fears and anxieties are probably the most important battles we face.
Christmas is a time when anxiety can be at its most intense. So much of what can be emphasised at this time of year, especially around consuming and spending, is intrinsically anxiety-provoking. It is easy to have a malnourished Christmas, which leaves us hungry and more anxious than ever.
And this is why it is important, in amongst the presents, food and fun, to make time to draw on the story at the core of the whole celebration.
A challenge to overcome is the sentimentalising of the Christmas story because it gives the impression that this is just a story for children.
Actually the brief passages in the Bible about the birth of Jesus are gritty accounts where something amazing is happening within the context of profound hardship and challenge. All the key characters face fear and receive the message: ‘Do not to be afraid’.
Mary is greatly troubled when the angel appears because she wonders what all this will mean. The angel says ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God’. She has to prepare herself for the scandal of pregnancy outside of marriage and the exclusion and isolation this will bring. It is hard for us today to understand the shame that would have engulfed her whole life.
Similarly Joseph also has to face the reality of the stigma that he is implicated in with the added personal betrayal which comes from knowing his wife-to-be is going to have a baby by someone else. The angel visits him in a dream to say ‘Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife’ because all of this has happened as part of God’s plan. This message of the dream was strong enough to Joseph to completely change his plans and take Mary as his wife before they travel to Bethlehem.
The shepherds, living out on the hills outside Bethlehem were considered like the scum of the earth and were hated and distrusted by respectable people. But they are the first to hear from the angels that a special child has been born. They are terrified when the angel appears. They are told ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” From the very edge of society, they are entrusted with a message which they acted on and went on to tell everyone about. It was a message which amazed all who heard it.
Hope is born
This story is no sentimental fairy tale. Hope is born – but it comes in the midst of scandal, stigma and real fear. This is what gives Christian hope its power to redeem and reconcile the most difficult of situations and the most broken of lives. God was born into straw poverty, in a world of fear and violence, yet overcame them with his love.
It’s a message so relevant for today. In a world of fear, love wins.