Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Don't Be Afraid

A Meditation for Christmas Eve


So everybody’s scared.

"Annunciation" Raphael Soyer
I think sometimes we’re so smitten with the cooing and the caroling at Christmas—the innocence we want to see in all this—that we miss the overwhelming sense of fear in these Christmas stories, the pervasiveness of anxiety.  We miss Mary, doubting God’s confidence, and questioning her own worthiness; and her fearing for all kinds of perverse judgment and human cruelty.  And we miss Joseph, scandalized by Mary’s predicament and anticipating all kinds of shame.  Wondering what in the world to do next.  And we miss the sheepherders, dozens of them, hundreds maybe—out there in the wind and rain.  Raising kids in the bitter cold.  And they’re scared too, homeless and hungry and scared.  Sleeping under bridges.  Pushing around busted shopping carts.  Forgotten and overlooked.  Wherever you look, whomever you talk to, folks are anxious, wary of what comes next.  From Mary and Joseph to parents of school age kids across the country; from bedraggled sheepherders to homeless families in the streets; from lonely young adults without prospects to entire countries on a fiscal cliff.  Everybody’s scared.

This sounds oddly familiar of course.  This month of all months.  Fear is like some kind of cultural, spiritual, personal paralysis.  You’re afraid that if you take on that new calling, invest yourself in that new passion, you’ll stumble along the way.  And lose faith.  So you don’t.  Or you’re afraid that if you step out in that new dance, cut loose of the world’s oppressive expectations, you’ll look silly.  And lose heart.  So you don’t.  Or you’re afraid of sending your kids to school or setting foot in a neighborhood on the other side of town or making new friends.  So you don’t.  You just don’t.  Everybody’s scared.  Everybody’s anxious.    

So tonight, for God’s sake, let’s pay close attention to the heart and soul, to the voice that sounds around us and within us this Christmas Eve.  If ever we needed these words, this voice, we surely need them now.  If ever the world ached for this good news, we ache together now.  So pay close attention.  This is what God wants you—wants us all—to hear.

“Don’t be afraid.”

The angel finds Mary weeping on the front porch, wracked by doubt and buried in dread.  And the angel says to Mary: “Don’t be afraid.”  Another comes to Joseph in a dream, finds Joseph feverish with fear; and the angel says to Joseph: “Don’t be afraid.”  And then, months later, deep in a dark night, yet another angel chases down all those sheepherders, all those hungry sheepherders; and the breathless angel says to them: “Don’t be afraid.”  Do you hear it?  Can you tune into the heart, the soul, the voice of Christmas?  “Don’t be afraid.”  “Don’t be afraid.”  You are already loved.  You are already cherished.  You are already God’s.  “So don’t be afraid.”

Decades ago, the great American mystic Thomas Merton wrote: “We have what we seek, it is there all the time, and if we give it time, it will make itself known to us.”  Friends, I think that this is really the transforming, renewing, delectable truth of Christmas.  “We have what we seek, it is there all the time, and if we give it time, it will make itself known to us.”  You are already loved.  You are already cherished.  You are already God’s.  Give it time.  And don’t be afraid.

Now do this for me.  Go home tonight and spend two minutes, before bed, at your bathroom mirror.  Look upon yourself.  Look upon the mystery of your life.  The lines at your lips that are unlike any other.  The birthmark only you can claim.  The light in your eyes that shines like stardust, like ancient stardust, and never dies.  Go home tonight, spend two minutes at the mirror; and remember these words.  God’s words.  “Don’t be afraid.”


And yet.  And yet there are other voices, aren’t there?  Other voices out there who’d be quite happy if you and I remained fearful, anxious and worried beyond belief.  It saddens me.  I know it saddens you too.  There are those who insist we’re never safe, that we can’t be safe—unless we are vigilant and cautious, wary of strangers and  dangerously armed.  They would feed you and me a steady diet of fear and suspicion.  As if that’s what makes us free.

The spirited Marian Wright Edelman—president of the Children’s Defense Fund—asked on Friday: “Why are we [in America] so terrified of one another?”  There’s a sad question, right?  “Why are we [in America] so terrified of one another?”  How can it be that on Black Friday, the first day of the Christmas shopping season, we set a record, our country set a record for gun sales?  Did you know that that day, the FBI reported 155 thousand requests for background checks from holiday shoppers?  And that was before the unimaginable violence in Newtown and the indefensible ranting of the NRA this week.  “Why are we [in America] so terrified of one another?”

Friends, the gospel we celebrate tonight, the gospel that you’ll see reflected in your bathroom mirror a little later—that gospel is so clear and so generous and so revolutionary in its implications.  “Don’t be afraid.”  In the eyes of a Child we find the grace that sets us free.  In the love of Jesus we find the truth that heals our hearts.  In the words of the gospel, we find the only love that will not let us go.  “We have what we seek,” said Merton, “it is there all the time, and if we give it time, it will make itself known to us.”  

So my question tonight is this: If we are a Christmas people, if Christians fully embrace the confidence of the gospel, will we stand up and be counted?  Will we stand up to the forces of fear and violence that, week after week, claim the minds and even the lives of our young?  Will we say, at last…NO!  We are not afraid.  We will not be afraid.

NO!  We are not terrified of one another.  We will not arm ourselves against those who look different or speak strangely or worship at other altars.  NO!  We will not expect the worst from one another.  We will not accommodate ourselves, our schools, our country to a culture of fear and violence.  It will not be so with us.

For unto us is born, now and forever, a child of peace, a teacher of love, a way of compassion.  And this will be our security: not a machine gun, not a clip that shoots a hundred bullets into a hundred bodies, not a drone that flies its cowardly course over Afghan villages while we celebrate holidays at home.  But THIS will be our security: the gospel of love; the gospel that names us now and forever as beloved; that gospel that, in the end, gathers everyone of us and all of us home in the heart of God.


So tonight my friends, for God’s sake, and for the sake of your grandchildren too, spend a couple of moments at the bathroom mirror.  Look upon the mystery of your life: the lines at your lips, the birthmark on your nose, the stardust in your eyes.  The story of Christmas, you see, is written there, in skin and sweat, the passage of time, the aching for more.  It’s the story of Mary and the story of Joseph.  It’s the story of a hundred sheepherders—wandering the darkness and discovering light.  And, in the end, it’s the story of angels, angels who come to us in more ways than we can ever know.

Saying this, always saying this: Don’t be afraid.  Don’t be afraid.