All of us have many things that they can worry about – whether its money, work, family or tricky relationships. For some, fears grow into serious conditions which seriously impair their lives.
When I became a parent it hugely expanded the scope and range of things I could be worried about. Anxiety easily becomes the default setting for modern parenting.
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 problem will be along in a minute to take its place.
Whether small or significant, 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 is emphasised at this time of year, especially around consuming and spending, is intrinsically anxiety-provoking. It is easy to have an expensive but malnourished Christmas, which leaves us more hungry and anxious than ever.
So what can redeem Christmas? I think the only thing that can is the story at the centre of the whole celebration.
We have to overcome the sentimentalising of the Christmas story because it simply does not do justice to what the Bible actually says.
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 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.
One last example of some experiencing fear in the Christmas story is King Herod. When the Magi tell him they have come to visit ‘the one born King of the Jews’, Herod is ‘disturbed and all Jerusalem with him’. It is the first sign of the unsettling effect that Jesus’ authority will have on those with earthly power. Herod’s tyrannical fear leads him to infanticide in a failed attempt to snuff out the threat.
Hope is born
The Christmas story is no sentimental fairy tale. Hope is born – but it comes in the midst of scandal, stigma, violence and much fear.
2000 years ago the world was a dark and fear-filled place – as it is today. But the light has come. As two verses often read at Carol Services put it:
‘The people walking in darkness have seen a great light’ (Isaiah 9:2)
‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it’ (John 1:5)
This is what gives Christian hope its power to redeem and reconcile the most difficult of situations. It is not wishful thinking and God offers no magic wand.
But the love embodied in His Son can mend us, help us reach out to others, heal damaged relationships, restore meaning and purpose.
Faith speaks to our fears. In a world of anxiety and worry, true hope is born.