Fear is not a major factor in 21st-century Christmas narratives. Perhaps a child is fearful of not getting what he or she wants from Santa. Parents may be fearful of post-Christmas credit card statements. But there is nothing like the shocking terror that pervades the first Christmas story from start to finish.
It begins with Zachariah, who is struck dumb after his unfortunate response of laughter at hearing that his long-barren wife is to have a child. Mary is said to be "greatly troubled" after an angelic visitor appears out of nowhere announcing that she is "highly favored." Joseph is, quite understandably, afraid to follow through with his betrothal after learning that Mary is "with child by the Holy Spirit." The shepherds are "sore afraid" when their ordinary night watch is suddenly interrupted by a choir of the heavenly hosts.
While the various actors are each, in turn, assured that they have nothing to fear, we may prefer not to be put in a position to need such reassurance. We are glad to wonder and puzzle at and even celebrate the mysterious word that God has come to be among us. But we do not like to be uncomfortable, and especially not at Christmas.
Thus, in the end, we may prefer to keep Christmas at a safe distance. For, if we really take seriously that the Lord of the universe, the creator of all that is, has come to "tabernacle" in the midst of our lives, we will almost certainly find ourselves, like the shepherds, having our daily routines interrupted. We will, like Mary, find ourselves wondering at the strange things that are said to us and even more so at the adventures that we are invited to be part of. We may even, like Joseph, find ourselves asked to do things that flout the standard social conventions. At the very least, there will be parts of our journey that do not obviously put us on the ladder to society's understanding of success.
But, if we choose safety over the risk of a true Christmas adventure, let us at least not fool ourselves into thinking that we have celebrated the God who has come to be among us. On this Christmas of 2017, do we dare open ourselves to the kind of holy fear that comes to those who are close enough to God to know fully his favor? Do we dare this Christmas to take seriously the familiar words, "Fear not," and allow ourselves, like the actors in the first Christmas story, to trade our fear for fearlessness? Do we have the courage this Christmas to make ourselves available, like Mary, for God's unexpected and always surprising purposes in our world?
Wishing you grace, peace and holy adventure during this Christmas season and throughout 2018.
Shirley A. Mullen, Class of 1976