A message from the angels: Fear not

An angel themed ornament on the "Angel tree" in the family room of the Joyce  Zerges household in this AJC file photo from Nov. 11, 2014. She has had parts of her house professionally decorated for Christmas and has worked with the decorators and others at M.C Twinklin's Christmas shop.

Combined ShapeCaption
An angel themed ornament on the "Angel tree" in the family room of the Joyce  Zerges household in this AJC file photo from Nov. 11, 2014. She has had parts of her house professionally decorated for Christmas and has worked with the decorators and others at M.C Twinklin's Christmas shop.

The richness of the Christmas story is that no matter how familiar it may be, there are always new meanings and messages to be learned.

This year, as I reread the ancient tale, two words leaped out at me: “Fear not!”

These words were trumpeted by an angel to shepherds keeping watch over their flock, who were understandably terrified when the night sky suddenly lit up with heavenly hosts delivering messages from God about the birth of a baby.

The King James Version of the Bible puts it a bit more poetically, saying the shepherds were “sore afraid.”

“Sore” is an archaic modifier meaning extremely. But it is a good description of what fear does to us. Fear tightens us up, makes our muscles ache, causes stress. Being “sore afraid” hurts. It makes us sore in body and spirit.

The angel’s command to “fear not” is a timely one this Christmas. We, as individuals and a nation, are sore afraid. It seems as if we are living in an age of perpetual anxiety and fear.

There are, of course, many things to fear. We fear the effects of climate change on our planet. We fear a culture where more and more people carry guns. We fear attacks by domestic and foreign terrorists. We fear for our children’s future.

Those understandable fears are stoked by some politicians who seem to lead by inciting fear, not allaying it.

Be afraid of Muslims, they tell us. Be afraid of Syrian refugees. Be afraid of immigrants. Every day we hear the message. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

To all of that the angels reply, “Fear not!”

“Fear not” is not only the message of the Christmas angels; it is a recurring command throughout Scripture. The words “fear not” or “do not be afraid” appear in the Bible 58 times, throughout both Testaments.

There were just as many reasons to be fearful in Biblical times as there are in our own day.

Jesus was born into a land taken over by the Roman Empire and occupied by that empire’s army, which was often cruelly violent to local residents. The infant Jesus and his parents were themselves refugees, fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous regime.

Jesus lived in dangerous and uncertain times, days when fear was plentiful and hope was scarce.

Scripture never ignores the realities of life. Difficulties are present. Evil is real. There are good reasons to fear.

But people of faith are commanded not to be afraid, even in the face of danger.

That is because God remains with us. The entire Biblical story is one of a God who is intimately involved in human history, who loves creation and longs for the day when justice and peace reign on earth.

Today, Christians around the world celebrate the birth of a baby who we believe is the divine presence coming among us in a most vulnerable way, sharing our joys and sorrows, reaching out to those on the margins, standing up to the evils of powers and principalities, showing us a better way to live.

A hymn for this season proclaims that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus’ last words before leaving earth are the promise, “I will be with you always.”

The knowledge and faith that God is with us gives us the courage to live without fear, even in fearful times.

Being faithful to the child whose birth we celebrate today means welcoming the stranger in our midst; respecting those who differ from us; reaching out to those who seek refuge in our land.

It means having the courage to resist those who try to play to our worst fears, and the courage to fight evil without sacrificing our own ideals.

In spite of the anxieties and terrors of our nation and our world, there is once again this Christmas “good news of great joy.”

Do not be afraid.

The Rev. Patricia Templeton is rector of St . Dunstan’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta.