Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
December 24, 2015; Christmas Eve, Year C
“But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid…’”
There are some true stories you hear that you couldn’t have made up if you tried.
Like the one happened a month ago at a Roman Catholic church in Queens. It’s called Holy Child Jesus Church — an appropriate name, as you’ll find out.
Holy Child Jesus Church sets up a large nativity display inside its sanctuary each year. On Thanksgiving weekend the custodian, Jose Moran, had just set up the nativity scene and went to lunch. When he returned he heard a sound — more like a whimper. Walking over to the manger, he discovered a live baby inside!
It was a newborn, only hours old. Part of its umbilical cord was still attached. The boy’s mother was nowhere to be seen.
He called the priest, who called child protection services, and the baby was soon in good hands. As for the mother, the police caught up with her using video-surveillance footage from nearby businesses. She wanted to quietly give her baby up for adoption, and thought, “What better place than Holy Jesus Child Church?”
The police aren’t filing charges. New York has what’s called a “Safe Haven” law, designed to keep babies from being abandoned altogether. The law protects mothers who, out of good attentions, leave their babies in places where they’re likely to get help.
As for the baby, the church office was deluged with phone calls from adoptive parents from all over the country. Surely he’ll end up in the hands of one of those loving families, so the story has a happy ending for everyone.
The church’s young priest, Father Christopher Heanue, said it best: “I think it’s beautiful. A church is a home for those in need, and she felt, in this stable — a place where Jesus will find his home — a home for her child.”
What causes a mother to commit such an act of desperation? In this case, for reasons of privacy, we’ll never know her exact story. But whatever the details, one thing’s for certain: her desperate decision was driven by fear.
That’s what fear does. It causes us to do desperate, irrational things.
The scientists tell us most fear has its habitation in a very primitive part of our brains: a tiny area known as the amygdala. Some call it our “lizard brain,” because that part of the brain is so old, in evolutionary terms.
The purpose of the amygdala is very simple: survival. Our lizard brain responds to immediate threats. It has a limited range of responses: just three options, really — and they’re classic. Those options are: fight, flight or faint. The amygdala decides in a split second what the response is going to be, and the body follows after.
This means that, if you’re wanting to manipulate someone, one of the most effective ways to do it is by means of fear. Gain mastery over the lizard brain, and you control the whole person. That’s why terrorism is such a threat. It’s right there in the name, for all the world to see: terror-ism. The men in the black hoods waving the black flags do want to kill Americans, but that’s not their ultimate goal. It’s just a means to an end. What they really want to do is make us afraid.
One other thing the men in the black hoods count on: someone to tell their story. Sometimes they do it themselves with their glossy propaganda magazine. But they’d much rather find someone else do that work for them.
They find such unwitting accomplices in two places.
The first is the news media — especially the 24-hour news networks. Those networks, too, know how to manipulate the lizard brain for their own purposes. They know that, when viewers are afraid of something, they watch more TV. That means more advertising dollars for the network. Ever wonder why there’s not more “good news” out there? It’s because good news doesn’t pay. So, the networks keep showing the same endless loop of disaster footage, over and over.
The second place where we’re vulnerable is the internet: especially social media. Facebook and Twitter are different than the TV news, because there’s no news director calling the shots. It’s our fellow users who generate the content, by posting or re-posting. A high percentage of those reposts are of things our friends are thoughtfully warning us about, things they think we ought to be afraid of. Sure, social media has its share of cute baby and pet photos, but set those aside and you’ll be surprised how your newsfeed is brimful and overflowing with fear.
It has its effect on us. How could it not? Researchers have shown again and again that, the more fearful information we take in and digest during the course of a day, the more likely it is that our perceptions of reality will be distorted. We’ll come to believe we’re living in a world that’s far more dangerous than it really is.
So, what we urgently need today — wouldn’t you agree? — is a way to manage our fears, to keep them in proper perspective. Old FDR — love him or hate his social programs, that’s your privilege — had it absolutely right, when he said in the 1930s, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” It’s a sad, sad thing that we’ve forgotten such wise advice, in this present day.
You know, there’s an encouragement to do exactly that — to manage our fears — right here in the Christmas story. You can see it in the very first words the angel speaks, even before he tells the shepherds they really ought to go down to Bethlehem and see this thing that’s taken place.
When the angel shows up, unannounced, the shepherds are overcome with fear. I like the vivid phrase from the old King James Version: they were “sore afraid.” (Think of that: being so terrified, it’s like physical pain!)
There’s good reason for them to be afraid. It’s not just one angel who’s hovering over them that night. It’s a whole blooming angelic army! That’s what “heavenly host” means: it’s the army of heaven! Those shepherds always thought the Roman legions were bad news. Now, they’re face to face with God’s special ops team!
But what’s the first thing the angel says to them? Not the thing you’d expect. Not at all. The angel says: “Do not be afraid.” The whole purpose of an angelic army is shock and awe, but the spokesperson for that army says no, don’t worry, those flaming swords are not for you.
In fact, “Do not be afraid” is the only thing the angel commands the shepherds to do. The angel doesn’t command them to go visit the Christ child. It’s more of a helpful hint: a wonder they won’t want to miss. The only thing God’s official representative commands them to do is not to fear.
Somebody did a study, once, of all the times “fear not” occurs in the Bible. Do you know how many times that is? 365. That’s once for every day of the year. (Coincidence? Maybe not.) Think about the implications. For each and every day of the year, God supplies a fresh command not to fear!
Ah, but how to do it? Anyone who’s ever struggled with fear (as I’m sure each of us has) knows how hard it is to avoid. Remember, for the lizard brain, it’s a survival issue. That’s why fear is such a hard habit to break.
Here’s a way to begin letting go of fear: a little practical suggestion. I was listening to a podcast interview not long ago with Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the personal memoir, Eat, Love, Pray. Elizabeth was acknowledging that, yes, fear is an evolutionary survival mechanism. Sometimes it has its purpose.
For that reason, she was saying, it doesn’t do much good to simply say, “Fear, go away” — because fear won’t go away so easily. Its whole purpose is to stick around and keep us safe. Elizabeth has found it helps her to — rather than fighting her fear — first thank it for doing the job it’s supposed to do.
She speaks to her fear as though it were a person, her personal bodyguard. She thanks her fear for saving her life on other occasions, but she knows she’s not doing anything dangerous just at that moment, and so she says to her fear, “Thank you, but your services are not needed right now.”
I don’t know if that will work for you or not, but it may be worth a try.
You can see an example of someone overcoming fear with faith in a little animated cartoon they show on TV every year, one of the highest-rated Christmas shows ever. It’s celebrating its 50th anniversary this year: A Charlie Brown Christmas.
You know that famous scene towards the end of the show, when the kids are preparing for the school Christmas play, and everything looks like it’s going to be a disaster because of that miserable excuse for a tree that was all Charlie Brown could come up with? Charlie’s friend Linus — the Peanuts gang’s resident theologian — saves the day. He steps out onto the bare stage of the school auditorium and recites the Christmas story from Luke chapter 2.
There’s one little detail the animators included in that scene that’s got a great deal of psychological depth. You know what Linus’ most distinguishing feature is, right? It’s his security blanket. In the Peanuts comic strips, Linus never goes anywhere without his blanket. Should it ever happen that Linus is separated from his blanket, for even the briefest time, take my word for it: it’s not a pretty sight.
When someone hangs onto a physical object solely for security purposes, it means they’re also hanging onto a deep fear. The security blanket is Linus’ way of holding his fear at bay. Yet, when he steps out onto that stage and says, “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus…,” Linus quietly lets go of his blanket and lets it fall to the ground in a heap. It’s probably the only time, in all the Peanuts cartoons, you ever seem him without it. For those brief moments when he’s telling the story, Linus is not even thinking about that blanket. Nor, evidently, is he thinking about his fear. That achingly beautiful story of the angels and the shepherds and the wise men, and the new parents camping out in the stable, surrounded by farm animals — and most of all, the little Lord Jesus, radiant on his bed of hay — all of this somehow banishes every fear from his mind.
Who knows? Maybe that was the vision that calmed the spirit of that deeply troubled mother in Queens, directing her to take bring her newborn boy to the church, and set him in the empty manger. For it is in that place, in all the world, that the love of God is most intensely focused.
So what’s your fear? What’s the one thought that troubles you so deeply, you simply can’t let it go?
Ah, but you can. You can, if you trust what God’s angel says. It’s the one and only thing he commands: to be not afraid.
Among the many powers of the Christ child, this one — his power to accept and keep our fears — just may be his greatest and most useful. Why not try relying on that power of his this Christmas? Whatever it is that’s your security blanket, whatever you’re gripping hold of so tightly it causes you pain, just let it go for now. Let it drop to the ground. You no longer need it. “Perfect love casts out fear,” say the scriptures. There, in the manger, lies perfect love incarnate.
Take up, instead, a candle. Light it with living flame. Sing, “Sleep in heavenly peace, dear Jesus. Sleep in heavenly peace.”
Copyright © 2015, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.