A friend of mine named Angela told me about a time when her faith was just awakening. Raised Catholic, she had a wistful interest in spirituality though scant knowledge of the Bible. As she started reading the Gospels she felt a sudden fascination for everything related to Jesus. She recounted one such day:
I worked in downtown Manhattan, and I’d even stop and listen to the street evangelists and the wild prophets who stood on the sidewalk announcing the end of the world. Everyone else mocked them or turned away. I stood there and soaked it in. What if they were right?
One day I was walking to the train station with a colleague from work. I caught a subway to Brooklyn, which ran every few minutes. But my friend took a train, and if she missed it she’d have to wait an hour, so she was always in a hurry. It was a blustery day, and we had our heads down against the wind. When we crossed one street and looked up, there was one of the street prophets holding a sign, “The end is near!”
He was muttering in a raspy voice, “Jesus is coming. Start singing.” I put my hand out and tried to stop my friend. “Did you hear what he said? Jesus is coming. We should start singing.”
She brushed off my hand and kept right on walking. “Angela, you need to get your hearing tested. He’s saying, ‘Jesus is coming. Stop sinning!’”
Or did Angela get it right after all? Reading Luke’s account of the Christmas story this year, I couldn’t help thinking of a Broadway musical. The cast of characters—an astonished virgin, a devout in-law, a tottery old man, a choir of angels—burst into song at the news of Jesus’ birth. Even Jesus’ kinsman John [the Baptist] “leaped for joy” in his mother Elizabeth’s womb.
Like any good musical, however, this one also has a counterpoint theme: fear. Angels who brought the message of the first Christmas felt obliged to lead with the words, “Fear not!” Zechariah was gripped with fear, and quite literally scared speechless. Mary was greatly troubled. The shepherds, terrified, cowered in the field.
If you study the songs, you can sense one reason for the fear: they lived in scary times, these witnesses of Jesus’ birth. Mary spoke with longing of a power that could scatter the proud and bring down rulers from their thrones. Zechariah sang about “salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” In the previous centuries a succession of empires—Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece—had tramped through the nation of Israel, leaving death and destruction in their wake. Now Rome, the most powerful conqueror yet, occupied the land.
Roman legions ruled with brutal force, repressing dissent and even invading the sacred temple to kill troublemakers. Although Romans did not invent the practice of crucifixion, the historian Josephus reports that they used it on an unprecedented scale, lining roads with thousands of victims. Crucifixion caused a slow, agonizing death, and made a gruesome public display of the consequences of rebellion.
“A sword will pierce your own soul too,” the old man Simeon warned Mary, a statement she doubtless pondered during her son’s time on earth. I wonder, in the three months that Mary spent sequestered with her relative Elizabeth, did the two expectant mothers have any inkling of the trials that awaited them? After enduring the shame of an unwed pregnancy and the ordeal of a late-term journey, Mary would have to flee to Egypt to save her baby from Herod’s massacre. That monarch’s successor would later behead Elizabeth’s son John as a party trick, and torment Jesus in a mocking trial.
Zechariah’s prophecy of “salvation from our enemies” did not play out as he hoped either. Like so many who encountered Jesus, he expected a different kind of Messiah, one who would lead victorious armies astride a stallion, not ride a donkey toward crucifixion. Yet a few decades after Jesus’ death would come Israel’s ultimate humiliation, the razing of Jerusalem and the mass suicide at Masada.
Luke knew about these defeats, of course, by the time he compiled his account of Jesus’ birth. A good historian, he avoided flashing forward to future events and kept the focus on the present, a moment in time when joy triumphed over the background of fear. The night of Jesus’ birth, angels filled the sky, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
“Jesus is coming, stop sinning!” muttered the street prophet in New York. With his animal-skin wardrobe and insect diet, John the Baptist was the prototype of such wild prophets, calling from the desert for his people to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” But my friend Angela heard a different message.
“Jesus is coming, start singing!” A melody of joyous hope floated through the air that first Christmas and throughout much of Jesus’ life on earth, although not everyone heard it. Why don’t your disciples fast and pray like John’s? his detractors asked. Why do they go on eating and drinking—with tax collectors and sinners, no less? Jesus had a simple answer: “Can you make the friends of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?” A new day had come, an interlude of joy in the midst of fear.
We, too, live in scary times. Wars, a refugee crisis, terrorism, global warming, the rise of empires, a divided nation, unstable governments—we have much reason to fear. According to Google, on Election Day, 2016, more people searched “end times” than any other topic in the Bible. We do well to remember the setting of the first Christmas, also marked by violence, terrorism, empires, and refugees.
Jesus’ family hustled him off to Egypt to escape violence. Nowadays, most of Jesus’ followers are fleeing the region. Not long ago Bethlehem and Nazareth had a population 80 percent Christian; now only a small minority remains. The seven locations where John addressed letters in Revelation have few if any believers left, and Christians in Iraq, Turkey, and Syria have virtually disappeared as a cultural force. The media daily report hostilities against Christians in far-flung places such as China and Pakistan. At such a time, joy can get swallowed up by fear.
While suffering from an illness that he believed would soon kill him, the poet John Donne, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, wrote a meditation on Jesus’ resurrection. He turned to Matthew’s account of the women who discovered Jesus’ empty tomb: they hurried away from the scene “very frightened but also filled with great joy…” In their “two legs of fear and joy” Donne saw a pattern for himself. He who had conducted so many funerals had every good reason to fear the bubonic plague ravaging London. Could he somehow trust God to keep his fear from triumphing over joy? Can I?
Reading the accounts of Jesus’ birth and resurrection back-to-back, I note that Jesus began and ended life wrapped in restraints: the swaddling clothes in a manger, the burial shroud in a tomb. In order to visit earth, he fully accepted its constraints—the story of Christmas, and also of the cross. In order to restore earth, he broke out of the constraints, casting off the burial clothes to herald a new era that would end in hope and glory. In Henri Nouwen’s words, “The resurrection of Jesus is God’s sign breaking through every form of human fatalism and despair.”
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time,” wrote the apostle Paul to the tiny knot of Jesus-followers in Rome, some of whom would be fed to lions or crucified like their master. Mary would have liked that analogy. As she held the baby Jesus, the childbirth pain receded into memory and her fears gave way to incautious joy.
I am listening to familiar Christmas carols differently this year. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” contains the line, “The hopes and fears of all the years do rest on thee tonight.” Kurt Vonnegut used that phrase with a tone of bitter irony in his novel Cat’s Cradle: a nuclear physicist hears office workers singing it at a Christmas party. Do the carolers really believe that the hopes and fears of all the years, which can be obliterated if one person presses the wrong button, rest on a Bethlehem newborn? Do I?
Then this carol, which celebrates the message that my friend Angela misheard:
Joy to the world! The Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing….
He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness,
And wonders of his love,
And wonders of his love,
And wonders, wonders, of his love.
May we remember that bright good news, this uneasy Christmas year.