Pay attention to the first words the Christmas angels speak.
In the gospels of Matthew and Luke, angels play a prominent role in all the stages of the unfolding Christmas story
In Luke an angel announces to the priest Zechariah that his aged wife Elizabeth will become pregnant and bear a son. The child will grow up to be the prophet we call John the Baptist. Again an angel, named Gabriel, announces to Mary that she will also become pregnant and bear a son. He is the Christ child of Bethlehem.
In Matthew an angel visits Joseph in a dream and removes his doubts about marrying the pregnant Mary. The angel assures him that Mary’s pregnancy is the work of the Holy Spirit. And Matthew says that this child, to be named Jesus, is the fulfillment of the ancient prophecy of Emmanuel, God with Us.
An angel announces the birth of Jesus to the shepherds outside Bethlehem on Christmas eve. He tells them that the newborn child is the savior of the world.
And then if we return to Matthew and proceed to the end of his story, we find an angel again meets the women who visit Jesus’ tomb. He announces to them that they will not find Jesus there, for he has arisen.
One thing unites all these stories of angelic appearances. That is the opening words the angels always speak. They are variously translated “Fear not” or “Do not be afraid.”
I find this striking, and I ask why. One possible answer is that a direct encounter with a real live angel can be very upsetting. Here is a manifestation of the numinous, a figure out of the world of the holy. And as the German scholar Rudolph Otto reminds us, the holy both fascinates us and terrifies us. When we humans are in the realm of the holy, we are outside our natural element.
This suggests that we should not understand the angels in these scriptural stories as cuddly cupids or as fashion plates in diaphanous gowns. These angels must have been powerful energy forces, otherworldly in a kind of disorienting way.
If this is true, then the human beings encountering these numinous figures have reason for being scared. All the reason in the world, therefore, that the angels must put the humans at ease before they can deliver their messages.
The Deeper Resonance of the Angelic Words
But I like to think there is a deeper reason for their re-assurance. Their “do not be afraid” become the opening words of the gospel. The actions of God can be frightening to our limited perceptions. But those actions are motivated by divine good will, by God’s loving purposes.
Those actions can make us very anxious, but the angels re-assure us to not be alarmed. We can have confidence that God will accomplish his loving purposes not only for ourselves, but for the whole cosmos.
This does not mean that nothing bad will ever happen to us. We may suffer deeply in our lives, through disappointments, losses, frustrations, tragedies, and malicious violence. The angelic messages promise no rose garden of a life.
But their messages do assure us that whatever we experience in life, we can be confident we do not experience it alone. God will be the enveloping presence in which we live and move and have our being. God will walk with us through fire and raging water as well as through green pastures.
That confidence can then nurture courage. We can be courageous in the face of all that life slings at us. And so courage becomes one of the great gifts of Christmas. It is a gift we all need in these anxious times.
What does that look like in lived life? For me Dietrich Bonhoeffer gives a great example. When the moment for Bonhoeffer’s execution came, the concentration camp doctor witnessed him kneeling in prayer before he was led to the gallows. He then described Bonhoeffer’s death as that of man “devout … brave and composed … I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”
How could Bonhoeffer face his death with such courage? I wonder if it was not because he had spent a lifetime letting the message of the Christmas angels sink deep into his soul.