The opening line to Band Aid’s Do they know its Christmas? in 1984 were sung by Paul Young:
‘Its Christmas-time, there’s no need to be afraid’
Many people may find it hard to sing along to these lines in Christmas 2020.
This year there is probably a longer list than ever of things that we feel afraid for or worried about: the well-being of loved-ones, isolation, loss of comforting traditions, the insecurity of employment, money being short. The pandemic has intensified and magnified anxiety.
Battles with fear
Managing our fears and anxiety is one of the most important battles we all face. I dislike the phrase ‘First World problems’ because it can trivialise the issues many of us struggle with. We live in a culture where pressure, stress, anxiety and meaninglessness deeply affect what matters most: our relationships with others and our identity, our relationship with ourselves.
We should not dismiss or downplay the reality of these struggles. Like so many others in the past year, I have seen the bitter cost of the virus on those I love.
What can help address fears is a genuine form of encouragement. I am not talking about a superficial sentimentality which coats problems in sugar, drapes them in fairy-lights, or drowns them in alcohol. This may be comforting in the short-term but these approaches just deny and delay reality rather than change it.
True encouragement gives us the resources to turn and face our problems. It tell us we are not alone, it gives hope and most importantly, it gives us courage.
And the Christmas story, more than ever, can be genuinely encouraging to us in the midst of our challenges this year.
A barrier to overcome is that no story in history has been more sentimentalised than the birth of Jesus. We have to be reminded that this not a story just 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 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. 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, along with the sense of betrayal 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 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 angel that a special child has been born. They are terrified but are told ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” Those on the edge of society are entrusted with a message which they told everyone about and which amazed all who heard it.
But of course, the story also has a far darker side. The other person who was afraid when they heard the news of this birth was the tyrannical and paranoid King Herod. When the wise men fail to stick to his plan, he lashes out with terrible vengeance. But he cannot stop the divine plan. For those living under unjust regimes, the Christian story is one of subversive hope: those who wield earthly power cannot resist God’s authority forever.
Hope is born
This story is no sentimental fairy tale. Hope is born – but it comes in the midst of suffering, scandal, stigma, political violence and fear. God enters a world of pain and overcomes it with his love.
This incarnated love is what gives Christian hope its power to reconcile the most difficult of situations and redeem the most broken of lives. It is a hope that can give us courage to address our fears – and help those around us confront theirs too.