What can one say about Christmas? Sermons have been prepared and spoken over the centuries that try to give deeper meaning to the Christmas story. Despite all those sermons, Christmas has been turned into a children’s fantasy, like a Grimm brothers’ fairy tale; the poem A Visit from Saint Nicholas (‘Twas the night before Christmas…) is a prime example.
Because we have heard it over the years, I think many of us simply know Christmas story by association. Nevertheless, we often do not hear the words because they are so familiar. It is not difficult, as the Gospel is read, to drift back in our thoughts to other times when we as children portray angels, shepherds, wise men, and the holy parents, and because our memories take so complete charge of this moment in time, we fail to hear the Christmas message. For example, in the story angels appear before the shepherds and say, “Do not be afraid.” The words of the angels are precisely, “Do not be afraid; for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Right from the beginning we hear the message that a Savior is born, but then in all the jubilation over the angelic announcement we do not hear the good news of this revelation. The good news is, “Do not be afraid.”
We live in a fearful time. I suspect we have always lived in fearful times. For example, I was born during the Great Depression, a very fearful time. By the time I was five years old ruthless war and inhuman atrocities engulfed Europe and the Asian Pacific area; a very fearful time. At age seven, a boy living in a Navy family at the Naval Academy, the terror of the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and German submarines sinking ships off the coast of Maryland gave me nightmares; a truly fearful time. By the time I was eleven, the atom bombs exploded over Japanese cities; a time of relief that the world war was over but a fearful realization that a momentous change in human affairs had occurred. As a young person in my teens I faced the reality of a nuclear holocaust; I recall seeing on our television set pictures of the atomic bomb exploding at Bikini Atoll and an artillery piece shooting off a shell with a nuclear war head. The war in Korea was a fearful time, the confrontations with Russians was a fearful time, and by the time I was finished with my undergraduate education and early in my career, the nation faced the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was an exceedingly fearful time. On and on it goes, the war in Vietnam, wars in the Middle East, more angry and fearful times.
We have every right to be afraid. People have flown airplanes into buildings, killing thousands of innocent people. War rages; people are killed randomly by religious fanatics and there’s even a threat of a pandemic of avian flu. What are we to do? We have every right to be fearful. Now we have angry young men bursting into our placid lives killing dozens of people, mostly young, with assault weapons while they watch a movie or sit in their first grade class room.
But listen again to the words of the angels, “Do not be afraid.” The Christian way of life is based in these words. That is the heart of the Christian message. Throughout the Gospels we hear the message, “do not be afraid,” or “have no fear.” For example, recall how Jesus quiets a storm on the Galilean lake, and he tells his friends, “Do not be afraid, O you of little faith.”
You might think the Christian message is that you must be saved; that is you must seek personal salvation. I don’t mean to say that salvation from sin and death is not a part of the Christian message, but it is not the central part. Probably, the challenge to be saved, that is you must be saved, needs to be reversed and stated as a question, “what must I do be saved.” To be saved we are required only to believe that Jesus is the Lord, the Son of the Living God. That’s the easy part. We can say we believe and tell others we believe but we only believe intellectually. Our faith is not formed by our intellect; instead it is formed in the hard rock of total reliance on the love of God and the teaching of Jesus that we do not need to live in fear.
How can I say this after reciting to you all the terrible dangers we have faced and will continue to face for the rest of our lives? I can proclaim this good news that there is no reason to fear on the grounds that God has done a mighty thing in the incarnation we celebrate here today. God has chosen to be one of us. God has chosen to live in our human form, to be rejected, and to suffer as a human does. Jesus, despite all these human trails, instructs us to be fearless.
Of course, this is not a license to be reckless in the face of true danger. It is, nevertheless, a command to let fear go and trust in God. Does that mean there will be no injuries, there will be no pain, or there will only utopic and Eden-like days from this time forward? Not likely. Christians, almost from the beginning, have had to face fearful reality. They were persecuted right from the beginning. Recall that Paul, who is first recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, is on a mission to arrest and torture Christians. He stands by and watches Steven, the first Deacon, being stoned to death. We can only concluded, even from the Scriptures, that life is dangerous and it is likely we will not get out of life alive. That is in our physical selves will die. Nonetheless, do not be afraid the promise is eternal life of the soul at the Great Messianic Banquet table.
Think what this wonderful annual celebration opens for us. If we are fearful because God has done a marvelous thing, we can take a risk to love the loveless, work to bring reconciliation to a torn and unhappy world, and be members of the living Church, the Body of Christ.
Because Christmas begins with, “Do not be afraid”, we can be truly joyous. We can sing of angels we have heard on high, we can sing out “Good Christian Friends Rejoice.” Because we are invited to live fearlessly in the Christmas story, all those old carols and hymns are not just sentimental remembrances of Christmases past, but are true descriptions of the life we live today. We can open our ears to hear the angels sing, we can open our hearts to invite others to join with us in our rejoicing.
Thus, the Christmas story is more joyous than we thought. We can rise out our bomb shelters and face the world with the strength of the Gospel and we can be certain that in faithful obedience to the angels’ words, “Do not be afraid” we will experience the same victory over all that assaults us—evil and death among all that—just as Jesus did as he rose above the world and thereby saved it.
Christmas is more than a celebration of the birth of an infant, no matter how divine; it is a celebration of a totally new way of living, a new way of being, and a new way fearless love.