Wednesday, December 21, 2016


There is no need to be afraid; in five days our Lord will come to us. Somehow the special Divine Office antiphons that for centuries have marked these final days before Christmas - among them, this unique antiphon at Lauds on December 21 - managed to survive the wrath of Paul VI's liturgical reform. So, as she has for centuries, the Church today highlights her pre-Christmas countdown, for the feast is now only five days away. And once again, the emphasis is on how the coming of Christ casts away our reasons for fear.

(Oddly, Pius Parsch paid almost no attention to this unique antiphon. "The Church is counting the days till Christmas," he wrote, and then added. "The liturgy is not without features of childlike simplicity.")

The antiphon's command not to be afraid is inseparable from the gospel accounts of the Christmas story. Last Sunday, we heard how an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream to tell him not to be afraid to marry Mary, in spite of her mysterious pregnancy. On Monday, an angel of the Lord, standing at the right of the altar of incense - now identified as Gabriel - told Zechariah not to be afraid and brought him the disconcerting news that his wife Elizabeth would bear him a son at last, a son named John destined to fulfill a mission associated with Elijah the prophet. Yesterday, in the familiar account of the annunciation, Gabriel followed his Hail Mary with the command not to be afraid she will conceive and bear a son, and name him Jesus. Over and over again, we hear this same command, Do not be afraidWe will hear it again on Christmas night in the angel’s reassuring words to the shepherds. And we will hear it again at Easter, from the mouth of the Risen Lord himself, the same Risen Lord whom we encounter whenever we celebrate the Eucharist.

And it is a command! A suggestion would be insufficient, given all we have to be afraid of and how powerfully our fears dominate our decisions! 

Decades ago, a priest recalled his visit to a remote Pacific island. When the people there learned that he was a Catholic priest, they welcomed him enthusiastically and asked him to talk to them about Jesus. They told him how, before they had been evangelized, they had been afraid of all sorts of things - physical and spiritual, natural and supernatural. Now however they understood that God is both bigger and more powerful than all those things that used to frighten them, and at the same time small enough to be one of us.

So much of life is governed by fear. And, on a purely natural level, fear can sometimes be the right motivator to respond to a situation with evasive or, better yet, corrective action. But fear can also immobilize us and keep us from becoming the persons we are intended by oru Creator to be, the persons our Savior empowers us to become. Hence the Christmas story, the Incarnation of God's love for us, who comes to cast away all our fear.

It is especially through this message of casting away our fear that the Christmas story - which summarizes the entire Christian story - may effectively function as a channel through which that Christian story may speak to today's fear-filled world in a way it can comprehend.

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