Ethics & Christian living

‘Do not be afraid’ is at the heart of the Christmas story

nativity
Nativity scene – Julius Garibaldi Melchers – 1891

All of us have 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.  

Festive anxiety

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.

Sentimentalised

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.

7 thoughts on “‘Do not be afraid’ is at the heart of the Christmas story”

  1. Thanks Jon. Preparing for worship tomorrow and was thinking about how fear and disbelief turns into joy and a deepening of faith for all the key people in the Christmas story – except King Herod! – when this post popped up! “Do not be afraid” are the words spoken most often by God/Jesus, somebody has counted them. How well He knows us!

    1. Thanks Rachel – I like that comment about fear and disbelief turning into joy and deepening of faith and the contrast with Herod that Stephen picks up below as well. Apparently there are 364 occasions in the Bible where it says ‘Do not be afraid’ but I am not sure how accurate that is! Thanks and have a great Christmas!

      1. Apparently ‘do not be afraid’ is the most common command in the Bible.

        The number is really about 80 or 100, but can be bumped up to 365 if you include every instance with the word fear (which I wouldn’t include, since they have a different meaning eg about the fear of the Lord).

        See links below:

        http://musingsofaministerswife.com/2012/08/so-how-many-times-is-fear-not-actually-in-the-bible/

        http://www.soulshepherding.org/2010/07/fear-not-365-days-a-year/

  2. A fourth example of fear in the Christmas stories is Herod being ‘disturbed and all Jerusalem with him’ when the Magi come seeking the one born king of the Jews. Although I think in this case the message is that the tyrants of the world should be afraid that the true king has come to topple them.

    1. Thanks Steve – good point and I wish I had worked a bit more of that into this. As Rachel said there is a real contrast between how a powerful tyrant responds to this news than those on the margins.

  3. I know how your son feels, I have anxiety as in the medical diagnosis and I feel SO guilty about it. There’s nowhere in the Bible that says “Do not have cancer” or “Do not have diabetes” etc. but there is plenty of stuff about not being anxious and how we should be trusting God. I fight to trust God everyday, but still get ill with anxiety on a regular basis. I don’t know what the answer really is, but I feel more ashamed of this part of my illnesses than any other.

    P.S. On a lighter note, I watched “It’s a beautiful life” yesterday at your recommendation, liked it, especially the bit about no man being a failure who has friends.

    1. Hi Stephanie, thanks for sharing so honestly. When we had that chat, my son seemed to hear this instruction as coming from a finger-wagging God ‘DO NOT BE AFRAID!’ so I tried to explain it more as a God who cares and loves us and wants us to feel secure within that love. Your comment shows the pain that people go through who are struggling with anxiety or depression and there are no simple answers. All I know is that Christians are just as susceptible to these conditions as anyone else and there should be no shame in feeling like this. Being honest and open about what we are going through is so important.

      I am glad you enjoyed the film! Have a lovely Christmas.

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