“WHAT ARE WE AFRAID OF?” (Mt 1:18-24): 23 December 2007 (Fourth Sunday of Advent)
(Note: This was the homily delivered on the eve of 22 December 2007 at the Simbang Gabi of the Gesu Chapel, Ateneo de Manila University)
This morning I woke up with a question in mind, and the question was: “When am I going to get the so-called Christmas spirit—you know, that feeling we usually get when it’s this time of the year?” I mean, it’s just two more days to go before Christmas, so how come I’m still not feeling it? But then I began to wonder, “How should I feel anyway? What’s the emotion of Christmas supposed to be anyway?”
So I decided to embark on a pseudo-scholarly enterprise for a change. I decided to analyze the so-called “Infancy Narratives”—the portion in the gospels that tells the Christmas story. As we know, the Infancy Narratives are found only in two gospels: Matthew and Luke. Thanks to the wonders of technology, I managed to do a word count to figure out which emotion is the most frequently mentioned in the Infancy Narratives.
According to American psychologist, Robert Plutchik, there are eight basic human emotions: Joy or gladness, sadness, acceptance, disgust, fear, anger, anticipation, and finally, surprise or awe. For the word count, obviously I put together synonyms for the different emotions.
Now, which of these eight basic emotions do you think is the one most frequently mentioned in the Infancy Narratives?
The three most frequently mentioned emotions in the Infancy Narratives are: fear (no. 1), joy or gladness (no. 2), and surprise or awe (no. 3).
Most people would expect anything but fear to top the list. The third placer, the emotion of surprise or awe—and related words like “wonder” and “marvel”—occurs five times: Twice in relation to the birth of John the Baptist, twice in relation to the shepherds’ visit, and once during the Presentation.
The second placer, the emotion of joy or gladness—with related words like “rejoice” etc.—is mentioned ten times, but this is expected since Christmas is supposed to be the season of joy.
“Fear” and all related words are mentioned thirteen times. Of course, the more sophisticated statisticians among us will be quick to point out that that doesn’t seem to be significantly higher than joy or gladness. Granted. But even to declare a tie between “fear” and “joy” is significant because we don’t usually associate fear with Christmas.
The point I’m making is that lest we forget, the first Christmas was an eventwrapped in fear. Now that we think about it, of course it makes sense! The first Christmas was understandably a most frightening event to the people most involved in it.
When the angel Gabriel broke the news to Mary that she was going to be with child, isn’t it just natural for Mary to be afraid of the prospect of losing Joseph? When his dream asked him to take Mary as his wife despite the circumstances, Joseph must have worried about what people would whisper behind his back. And don’t forget when they found themselves in Bethlehem, Joseph and a very pregnant Mary could not find a place to stay! They must have been stressed, to say the least. And then just when Mary finally thought they were going to enjoy some peace and quiet, strangers kept popping up in the stable—shepherds and astrologers from the East—offering strange gifts and stranger accounts of what had led them there. And of course, there was the ever-looming danger of Herod’s rage—that jealous king, himself afraid of the threat posed by the newborn King of the Jews.
The touching, tranquil scene that we see in the belen is but one single moment, one brief interlude that by no means captures the entire mood of the Christmas story. The serenity of that scene is soon abruptly interrupted by a stern warning to Joseph from an angel, and before they know it, Mary, Joseph, and their child are fleeing in the night to Egypt like fugitives and refugees.
What does all this tell us? That the Christmas story unfolded in a way that was far from tranquil. That it transpired in a world of uncertainty, rejection, homelessness, and violence. Does it sound familiar?
It’s no wonder then that each time an angel appeared during the Infancy Narratives—whether to Zechariah, to Mary, to Joseph, or to the shepherds, the one line that the angel always uttered first was: “Do not be afraid.” Some people actually concluded that the biblical angels of God probably looked nowhere like the cute little Hallmark angels that decorate our homes and shopping malls. After all, their visits always seemed to inspire fear. But biblical scholars tell us that perhaps with the exception of the shepherds, where the very appearance of a host of angels was understandably frightening, the angels always said “Do not be afraid” not so much because they looked scary, but because the very message that they were about to relay could be frightening. In the case of Zechariah, it was the disconcerting news that his long-barren wife, Elizabeth, would bear a son in her old age. For Mary, it was the awesome mission she was being invited to undertake. And for Joseph, it was all the consequences of taking Mary as his wife given the circumstances.
If the First Christmas unfolded in a milieu of uncertainty, danger, and fear, perhaps the most important Christmas message is precisely “Do not be afraid.” And why should we not be afraid? Matthew provides a clue when he quotes the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel—which means, God with us.”
In other words, although we live in this wounded and wounding world of ours, we need no longer live in fear because God has already given us the gift of his presence and his nearness in the person of his only Son. And because he is God with us, he offers us yet another gift: freedom from fear. So Christmas is not about God taking away our fears. It isn’t about God taking away the sources of our fears. Rather, Christmas is about God joining us in this world and in our lives, in the very midst of our fears. The invitation to each of us this Christmas is to stop living in fear and to learn to live with our fears. There is an important difference between the two.
And Jesus offers precisely to free us from fear all throughout his life and ministry. The words “Do not be afraid” are spoken at least five more times in the gospel of Matthew, and in four of those times, it is Jesus who speaks them. He tells the disciples not to be afraid during a storm. He speaks those same words to Peter, James, and John during the Transfiguration and later to the women fleeing his empty tomb. To the disciples that he is sending out on mission, he says, “Have no fear” of dangers brought by this world.
So, when we think about it, maybe the heart of the Christmas message is not so much “peace and joy” because as we know in our hearts, peace sadly remains fragile in our world, and joy elusive. This world of ours continues to be wracked with uncertainty, rejection, stress, homelessness, and violence—the very same things that struck fear in the hearts of the people of the first Christmas.
Maybe the heart of the Christmas message is truly “Do not be afraid.” For our world remains sad and violent. Our nights are far from silent and far from holy. But it is to this sad and violent world that God himself has descended. It is to our unquiet and unholy nights that he has been born for us. Yes, God Himself! The All-Transcendent One has gathered his infinite vastness to be near us and to be with us. He has transcended even his own transcendence in order to become immanent and one of us. And because God is with us, the angels are right: We need no longer be afraid!
And so let’s ask ourselves: “What am I most afraid of in my life? What do I fear most in my life?” Maybe this Christmas we can gather all our fears and pray that the Lord will grant us the grace this Christmas that we no longer live in fear, but that knowing He is with us, we may learn to live with our fears.
(image: Rembrandt’s “Sacrifice of Isaac”)