Have you ever noticed how much fear surrounds the events of the first Christmas? Last week, we heard the angel appear to Mary with the words, “Do not be afraid.” This week an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph and says, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” On the night Jesus is born, we will be told the shepherds were afraid, and the angels tell them not to be afraid. What’s going on with all this fear at what’s supposed to be the happiest, most joyful time of the year?

After all, you don’t tell someone, “Do not be afraid,” as a conversation starter. Those words are a response to fear. When someone says, “do not be afraid,” the person you’re saying it to is already afraid, startled, freaked out, and in some shock. Fear seems to be the initial reaction of the main characters in the Christmas drama when they are brought up to speed on God’s plan for their lives and everything that comes next. Those who go into the story next, the shepherds and observers, are also initially fearful. Whether we like it or not, when we read the Christmas story, the first emotion that it evokes in the real people who experience it firsthand for the first time isn’t peace, joy, hope, or love; it’s fear. Then they must be told to “not be afraid.” That, my friends, maybe the greatest challenge of the entire Christmas season. Do we believe that there is nothing to be afraid of? Because the last time I checked, the world is still a scary place.

Christmas isn’t supposed to be motivated by fear. That’s usually how we think. Christmas may be stressful, funny, wacky, and exhausting, but we’re all brought up and conditioned not to associate Christmas with fear. If anything, we’re supposed to be in our comfort zones looking out for ways to be charitable, loving, hanging out with family and friends, enjoying good food, catching up with people we’ve lost touch with, and reprioritize our lives. Fear isn’t supposed to factor into Christmas. It’s supposed to be all happy, happy, joy, joy, and an endless supply of sausage balls. Yet every time we turn around in the Bible, someone related to the Christmas story is afraid of something about God’s plan for Christmas and the true meaning of Christmas. We’re always complaining about the true sense of Christmas being lost or watered down, and here in the Bible, it’s the true meaning of Christmas that’s scaring people and leading people to need to be told, “it’s okay, chill out, don’t be afraid.” So, one of the first things I notice is that Christmas can stand and fight for itself. The greatest threat to Christmas isn’t someone saying happy holidays; it’s ultimately our fear of the unknown, not knowing what God is doing. The only way Christmas can lose its meaning is if we refuse to listen to the words “do not be afraid.” It’s that moment we let our fears start to guide us, and we begin to believe we can’t survive without our protection. We stop listening to God and start listening to our fears.

Christmas, when it descends for the first time, is a polarizing affair. No one is in the middle with just mediocre, “I could love it or leave it” feelings about Christmas. People are either all in or all out, like King Herod, the Grinch, or the Nazareth branch of the Not Believing Our Teenagers When They Claim to Have Been Made Pregnant by the Holy Spirit Political Action Committee.

Because Christmas is a polarizing time, listening to hope, love, joy, and peace and tuning out our fears is hard. Just because the calendar turns to December and we start baking holiday goodies doesn’t mean that time freezes, wars end, or suffering stops. I need to hear the angel’s message (not so much in a dream), not to be afraid because I am afraid. There, I said it. I am afraid. Maybe it’s because all my other senses are heightened at this time of year. I know I should be joyful and grateful and have many different emotions. I’m afraid I won’t do them right. I’m afraid I’ll do something wrong and mess up Christmas for my family and those I love. I’m worried this will be the last Christmas I can spend with my father. I’m so scared I’ll stand up here and say something wrong that will offend someone’s religious sensibilities when all I’ve ever wanted to do is preach the Gospel. I’m worried I’ll get the wrong gift or no gift. I’m concerned about having enough gas in the tank. I am afraid of having enough money when I retire, especially when the church splits. If you’re anything like me, and I don’t think we’re all that different, the angel’s words of “do not be afraid” are precisely what you need to hear at Christmas.

God knows that real-world practical fears, like the ones plaguing Joseph and Mary, are part and parcel of our daily lives. Two thousand years may separate us from the events in Nazareth and Bethlehem, but here’s the truth: people are still people. When taken in their totality, these fears impact our ability to experience love, joy, peace, and hope. (You’ll notice I keep coming back to those four ideas. That’s no accident. That’s what the Advent candles represent. Those are the way stations we pass on the way to Bethlehem each of these four weeks. Those are the ideals that define this season. If you’re not trying to experience love, joy, peace, hope, and ultimately Jesus, you’re not celebrating Christmas or Advent. I don’t know what you’re doing, but it’s not Advent or Christmas.)

God knew this season of preparation would be a time when our initial reaction would be fear and uncertainty. As a computer programmer might put it, he wrote that into the code. It’s not only okay to be afraid it is expected. If we’re not afraid, maybe we’re doing it wrong; there’s some overconfidence, narcissism, and sin we might need to name. It’s also okay to talk about and voice your fears. The sin would be, as I think the angel identifies in his conversation with Joseph, would be to compartmentalize them, push them down, deep down in our souls, and never deal with our fears. I believe God wants us to be emotionally and physically healthy.

Here’s the thing about Joseph’s fears: they are driven by scarcity. Will I be enough? Will I have enough? Am I capable enough of being what God needs me to be? Do I have it within me to be the Dad I need to be? Do I have it within me to be the husband my fiancé deserves me to be? All of these questions are running through his mind. All of them are rooted in the notion of scarcity; he is afraid that he does not have what it takes to do what God or the world will need him to do. Who among is not afraid we don’t have what it takes? Who isn’t concerned at one level, our best isn’t or won’t be good enough?

The angel comes to Joseph (and us) and says: “Do not be afraid. You are about to step from a world of fear and doubt into a reality of abundance and love.” The angel doesn’t say your fears are irrational or stupid. The angel doesn’t say, “get over it.” By telling us to “not be afraid,” God acknowledges the reality and validity of our fears. By making that declaration, by meeting us where we are, without precondition, judgment, anger, or wrath, God is saying that I will walk with you, side by side, through your fears.  We will not be alone. If you’re afraid, God says, “I’ll be there.” If you’re overwhelmed, “I’ll be there.” If you’re courageous, “I’ll be there.” Just be yourself, God will meet you where you are.

–Richard Bryant