Sometimes there are stories that sit with you. I wrote my first draft of this post one month ago, but I haven’t been able to let it go–or perhaps, it won’t let go of me. A month ago, I wrote from a sense that “Do not be afraid” was one of the central messages of the Christmas story. Since then, I have experienced a horrible stomach virus that almost sent me to the ER, a series of panic attacks linked to our upcoming flight to California, and the surgeries of several friends and family members. And of course, with all of you, I have watched in horror as we have learned about the latest school shooting. Do not be afraid? At times, it has become more of a question than a declaration.
But it won’t let me go. Do not be afraid. Through the hills and valleys of this month, this phrase has become inextricably linked in my mind–even, in my heart and gut–to the Christmas story. As I keep editing and re-working this post, it has been working on me. And so now, I give it again to you with my prayers that you too will find a measure of peace in the midst of your own lives. Merry Christmas.
A Story of Scared People
Christmas, the first time.
See her lying there, trembling. Her day of delivery approaches. She is tired, but sleep will not come; and so she wills the sun to return. Joseph will come for her then.
Joseph. She smiles. His name brings her peace.
In the morning, they will head south to Bethlehem. In the morning, the donkey will carry her away from everything she has ever known.
The donkey. As she remembers his dumb beast, her throat constricts and she pushes herself upright, now willing herself, “breathe, breathe, breathe.” Breathe. It will be hard to breathe as she is carried along, the impact from every step a blow to her tight skin. When will she finally burst? When will the miracle-child, now kicking her in the ribs, come? By the side of the road, under the rude stares of curious traders, as a spectacle to strangers? Maybe there will be a woman–oh, let there be a skilled woman–to ease the delivery and stop the bleeding.
“What if we are all alone?”
Breathe. No, they will not be alone. In the distance, as far away as memory lingers, she hears the rustle of wings. Do not be afraid. Always the first word and always the last. Do not be afraid. She lays back down.
See them flee, trembling. Brave men, rough and crude, they have met their match. The sky pulses, the ground swells and rolls under their callused feet. The world is ending. The animals flee. There is no rustle here, only words exploding in the air.
Do! Not! Be! Afraid!
They are scared enough to hear every word.
See him now, trembling. He crouches in the dirt, picks up a smooth stone, remembers. Remembers his rage that night, that night long ago, the night when he was the first to know. How he had considered his legal right to stone. His legal right to Mary’s death, to justice. How he had trembled then, picturing her face and hearing the screams. No. He had decided to just walk away.
Alone in his bed, the rustle came with a command. Do not be afraid to take her as your wife. In the blinding light, he had obeyed.
Now the baby walks and the royal travelers have come and gone. With their gifts, they left behind a warning. The king is suspicious. Jealous. Furious. He cannot be trusted. And the angel comes again, this time with no comfort, only this–Get up. It is time to walk again. Get up. Take the toddler and his mother far away. Go now. The soldiers are coming.
But remember, Joseph, Do not be afraid. Remember the name of the baby. Remember what it means.
The Lord saves. Just not necessarily in the way you were expecting. Go now.
See you reading, see me writing. We know this trembling. At times. At times when anxiety threatens to overcome us, when just a word or two shoves us into a place where we would not choose to be.
At these times we need to know that they trembled too.
They were scared. We are scared. And the rustling, exploding command was given to them so that it could be given to us. Do not be afraid. You’re nervous when you drop your kids off at school? Do not be afraid. The police cars are blocking off the next block again? Do not be afraid. You worry about what you will do when your savings are gone? You can’t believe that your body is betraying you by growing old? Your son is hanging out with the wrong crowd? You wonder if you will ever find work that is more than just a paycheck? You are overwhelmed by the decisions you face for the parents who used to take care of you?
Listen closely to the story this year. Listen to the songs. It is Emmanuel who kicked Mary in the ribs.
And it is because we are not alone that we need not be afraid.