24 December 2021
How not to be afraid. ©Suzanne Grimmett
Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people’
We know that angelic messengers always seem to receive the same response in scripture- terror. We know that the first words of these divine messengers are nearly always the same: “Do not be afraid.”
While that should give us a sense of what angels are like, I think it also says a lot about people. When we see the glory of God around us, fear- not wonder- is our first response. And I wonder, too, if “Do not fear” is not just about the appearance of the angels but is actually the standard message God would deliver to us in each and every moment.
Seventeenth-century British poet and Anglican priest, Thomas Traherne wrote, “Your enjoyment of the world is never right, till every morning you awake in heaven.”
If you are anything like me, feeling like you are in heaven is not the first thought that comes rushing in to your mind when you first open your eyes. I think Traherne is pointing to a truth that the glory of God can be found all around us, and that gratitude and wonder can replace our natural defaults towards anxiety and fear.
There are of course justifiable reasons for feeling afraid. It is not surprising at this time of pandemic and changing restrictions to feel some anxiety. Perhaps Thomas Traherne was born in a more blessed age if he was able to claim that he awoke every day in heaven. That could not be further from the truth, however, as he lived through a violent civil war, the execution of the king, followed by the brutal dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell. If that was not enough, once he was ordained a priest, Traherne found himself in the midst of an outbreak of bubonic plague at a time when its fearfulness was exacerbated by not understanding what it was or how to treat it.
So it doesn’t seem to be true that fear is determined by our outward ciurcumstances. Maybe fear is more about the story we tell ourselves. The story we live in.
Traherne goes on to say, “You never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself floweth in your veins,” he wrote, “till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars.” Kathleen Norris writes that what Traherne imagined, we now know to be true: ‘human blood has the same chemical composition as seawater, and every atom in our bodies was once inside a star.’
I think this is a part of the story we have forgotten as we have separated ourselves increasingly from the natural world. Maybe to not only enjoy the world but to also find ourselves in a better, bigger story rather than a small and fearful one we need to reconnect ourselves with creation every bit as much as we seek to reconnect ourselves with this story of the incarnation- the holy one who has crept into our world this night as a vulnerable baby.
There is, of course, two incarnations. The first is at creation. When God’s spirit pours forth and the universe bursts into light and life- continuing in its long evolution down the ages- the glory of God is hidden within all life and revealed in the heavens and the earth. This incarnation includes the stuff of which we are made- the stardust which makes up the atoms of life. It tells us we belong here not just because of the matter we all share, but because we are an embodied chapter in the ongoing story of creation.
The second incarnation we celebrate tonight. Jesus- Emmanuel- God is with us.
This story tells us that all the fearful stories we have been inhabiting are too small for us because the vast mystery of God has been wrapped in human flesh. God comes to us not when we have our lives together and our world at peace, but precisely in our greatest need. This is an in-breaking rescue mission initiated by God and not dependent on anything we have done or left undone. The reading from Titus tells us “the grace of God has appeared”- the unmerited favour of God has entered our world in a human life, bringing forgiveness and mercy. We do not need to fear the hells of our own creation nor the darkness that at times overwhelms us, nor the threat of separation from the love we have known. God is with us.
We read in Luke;
While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
The use of the word “inn” is a curious one. In Biblical Greek the word used here for “inn” is kataluma . When we hear “inn” we are most likely thinking of something akin to a motel, or the first century equivalent of a hostel that takes multiple guests and their horses. And that wouldn’t be far off…if you were reading Luke’s story of the Good Samaritan, where the word for inn is different and does mean a kind of hostel with an owner and beds for the night.
However, this is not the word used in the nativity story. Here the word is kataluma, which is a different thing entirely. Most people of the time lived in a one-roomed dwelling where there was a space for living and sleeping and a fire. Animals were brought in at night for extra warmth and to keep them safe. If you were lucky, you also had an upper room- a kataluma- which could be rented out. It is important to remember that the story tells us the reason Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem was because it was the home town of Joseph’s family. The story also tells us that there was no place for them in a kataluma, so Mary had the baby and laid him in the manger. As poet, Padraig O’Tuama points out, the manger would have been where mangers always were: in the living space of a family, a family who made room for Joseph, Mary and Jesus in their own home. This would likely have been some of Joseph’s relatives who made space and offered shelter to the young family in need. So perhaps our nativity scenes need to include some distant relatives assisting with the birth, or standing around in awe and wonder as ecstatic shepherds come bursting in, punch drunk on visions of angels. Middle Eastern cultures, both then and now, place high value on hospitality and such audiences are horrified by Western storytelling where a woman about to give birth is turned away at the door.
This scene is about shelter; the shelter offered by family, by the warmth of animals and the kindness of strangers. Shelter enables us to feel safe, releasing our fears so that new life can be brought into being. We often talk about facing our fears, or fighting our fears, but if you have ever struggled with overpowering anxieties, you will know that fears rarely, if ever, dissipate when we try to combat them. We need instead to find a safe space – allowing the darkness of our fears to be brought into the light, there creating a shelter for a bigger and more life-giving narrative to emerge.
In this storythere is a shelter for a larger, more truthful story to be born- a shelter first in the body of a young peasant woman and then in the kataluma offered by the hospitality of friends and strangers. This sheltering has allowed the biggest story of all to be revealed to the world and lived out in life after life of those who allow space for the Christ in their own hearts and find the courage born of love.
So may the joy of Christmas dawn upon you.
May the shelter of this wondrous story transform the anxieties that shrink your life and dispel the fears that have enclosed walls around you.
May you hold the light of the Christ child in your hearts that you may hear the truth of the angels, and know that, whatever happens, you need not be afraid.
 Kathleen Norris in Higgins, Gareth. How Not to Be Afraid (p. xi). Broadleaf Books. Kindle Edition.