“Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid!”
A Meditation on the Message of Angels
Brent J Eelman
The title of this essay is drawn from the 1980’s movie “The Fly,” but it could very well be a paraphrase of much of the contemporary social and political rhetoric that dominates our landscape. Be afraid of refugees. Be afraid of terrorism. Be afraid of crime. Be afraid of the future. The emotion of fear is a useful response that protects us against real dangers. But fear is often stoked by principalities and powers to manipulate, abuse, and control humanity. Fear is contagious. We sense it in others and it raises our own anxiety and worries. We talk about our fears and it multiplies not only in our own soul but in the collective soul of our community.
Fear is also addictive and the visual media, by means of its news and entertainment outlets, feeds this addiction through exaggeration and misrepresentation supported by visual stimuli. Consequently, we believe that the murder rate is the highest it’s been in 47 years. (PolitiFact reports that the murder rate is down 42 percent during this period in spite of a 25% uptick in population. There has been a slight increase from 2014-15). We are afraid of international terrorists. (PolitiFact reports that between 2005 and 2015 there were 71 deaths caused by international terrorists in the United States while there were 301,797 gun deaths during that same period.)
Out of fear we build walls, whether around our property or our nation. Out of fear we buy guns; handguns, assault guns, and stun guns. Out of fear, we vote.
“People react to fear, not love,” Richard Nixon once said. He continued, “They don’t teach that in Sunday school. But it’s true.”
But our concern should be what we teach in Sunday School. The heart of the Christmas message addresses the reality of fear. The words, “Do not be afraid” appear throughout the Christmas narrative. The angel speaks to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist who was overcome with fear, “Do not be afraid…” (Luke 1:13). The angel speaks to Mary, the mother of Jesus, “Do not be afraid…” (Luke 1:30). The angel speaks to Joseph, afraid of the public scandal that might entail from Mary’s pregnancy, “do not be afraid…” (Matthew 1:20). The angel speaks to shepherds, Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy…” (Luke 2:10).
The announcement of the birth of Jesus is accompanied by the angelic message, “Do not be afraid.” We echo these words in our Christmas Carols: “No more let fears and sorrows grow…” “Now, you need not fear the grave…” “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” declares that this message is proclaimed against a backdrop of fear, naming it “Babel.” “And ever o’er its Babel sounds the blessed angels sing.” The Christmas story and the carols we sing are an invitation to respond, not to the fears that enslave and control, but to the hope of the world that frees, restores, heals, and loves.
But there is a dark side to the Christmas story that we encounter in Matthew. It is the story of the Magi. In that story we encounter the politician, Herod, who responds not to this hope, but rather to his fears. “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened…” (Matthew 2:3). Matthew exposes Herod as a duplicitous ruler who feigns religious devotion to achieve political ends that enhance his power. “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” (Matthew 2: 8). His true nature is revealed in the massacre of infants. “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.” The end product of fear is violence and death. This was the outcome of Herod’s politics of fear: violence and death visited upon the innocents.
In the ancient Christmas story, we encounter a carpenter, Joseph, a teenage mother, Mary, shepherds in the fields and Magi (astrologers) in the east, responding to their hopes: the prophetic hope of peace on earth, the hope that peace can exist in a diverse community, (Isaiah 11:1-9), and the hope of justice for the poor, the outcast, and the weak (Isaiah 61:1-4).
Does this message, the negation of fear, still ring out during our Christmas celebration? Do we respond to the Gospel message of hope or to our modern Herods and their political message of fear? I believe this is the choice that is before us this Christmas. Rick Wilson, a political ad creator stated: Fear is easy. Fear is the simplest emotion to tweak in a campaign ad. You associate your opponent with terror, with fear, with crime, with causing pain and uncertainty.” He continued, “ When people are under stress, the hind brain takes over.” In other words, we lose our God given rational selves, the ability to use good judgment. In short, we abandon the gift and calling of being creatures made in the image of God. We can journey down this road of fear and follow it to its destination of violence, war, destruction and death.
Or we can choose the other road. It is one of moral courage, economic justice, and healing. This is the journey, marked by a star that leads to Bethlehem. It is the fearless journey of hope.