“The angel said to her, ‘Fear not, Mary; for you have found favor with God.’” (Luke 1:30)
Turn the pages of the nativity stories and you’ll stumble into four scenes in which an angel appears and declares, “Do not be afraid!” My first reaction is yeah right.
In the biblical imagination, angels were terrifying, fiery creatures to behold, not at all akin to our sweetly be-robed, winged ladies. The mere arrival of an angel was cause for fear, and that doesn’t touch the news they came to deliver — life-altering circumstances which were for Mary and Joseph threats to their well-being.
Don’t be afraid? It seems a callous command from an all-powerful deity who can’t empathize with the vulnerability of human experience. Is fear the problem, God? Fear is exactly what I have felt these last two years.
The reaction by some preachers to common-sense measures like mask-wearing has been to scream Do NOT be afraid! as if fear itself is ungodly, but this all seems at odds with the thrust of the nativity story about Emmanuel, God with us, in our most fragile, fear-inducing form: as a newborn.
In his book Redeeming Fear, Jason Whitehead writes that “to be afraid is to remember that something in life is worth living for.” And he makes the case that fear is a useful, adaptive emotion that protects us, and that “an empathetic, compassionate, relational God knows what it is to be afraid.” Now, that tracks with the Emmanuel story.
Maybe the angels aren’t issuing commands. Maybe they’re admitting the truth of the moment — that what’s happening is scary — and offering the consolation that even though there is every reason to be afraid, there is also the presence of God. The arrival of Jesus makes clear God’s desire to be with us, not to erase our fears but to accompany them.
Whiteheads links fear and hope as two anticipatory emotions, one that tells us what to avoid in order to survive, one that beckons us towards possibilities that are not yet evident, and he argues that both are reflections of God’s desires for us to live and thrive.
If you’re afraid these days, there are stories about God’s desire to be with you in your fears. They are stories of improbable hope, evidence that our creative and loving God is always working to offer us new possibilities for life. Do not only be afraid. Emmanuel is come. God is with us.
Lauren Graeber is a writer and co-director of the Center for Prayer and Spirituality at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in High Point, North Carolina. You can follow her on Instagram: @definitelysometimes.