These four beautiful banners hang against the east wall of our worship space during Advent: WATCH, WAIT, HOPE, PRAY they remind us. The mantra of this season of expectation, this season when we await the coming of Christ. And on the back of each of the banners is another word, the same word on each. It’s written in invisible ink, but it’s there. That word is FEAR.
For fear, you see, is the backside of WATCH. We do not watch, stay alert, mindful, because we’re afraid. We’re afraid that Jesus isn’t out there in the darkness of the future, so we turn inward and become obsessed with our own insecurity. Fear is also the backside of WAIT. We’re afraid that God isn’t going to be present and active in the future, so we try to seize control of the future for ourselves. Fear is the backside of HOPE, causing us to yield to despair. And fear is the backside of PRAY. We’re afraid there is no God there to hear our prayers, so we stop praying, stop reaching out for him. Fear. Fear is always the enemy, the backside of holy life.
In Scripture, we know, angels are always coming to people with messages. The word angel means simply messenger in Greek. These messengers are everywhere, but we don’t notice them because we are afraid. We are not watching, waiting, hoping, praying. The most famous angel, of course, is Gabriel, who comes to the Virgin with the message that Mary has found favor with God and is to conceive by the Holy Spirit and bear God’s Son: what we call the Annunciation. We sang this morning the Magnificat, Mary’s great response to God, the fruit of her watching, waiting, hoping, praying.
The first thing that an angel typically says when he comes to someone is “do not be afraid.” That’s what Gabriel said to Mary. That’s what God says through the prophet Isaiah (prophets being another sort of angel) in the beautiful passage we heard this morning: “Say to those who are of fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.’ . . . Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” The dark future of fear becomes the bright future of joy, of abundance, of peace: the future of the Lord.
Fear, as I say, is the great obstacle to faith; really, the great opposite of faith. Faith is not a matter of believing propositions – “six impossible things before breakfast,” as the White Queen said in Alice in Wonderland. That’s one of the problems of reciting the Creed in the Eucharist: we come to think that faith is all cognitive, propositional. Faith is much more a matter of not allowing ourselves to be captive to fear. Of being like Mary.
So just what is our fear about? What is the anatomy of fear? Being fearless does not mean being reckless – teenage boys leaping off high rocks into quarry pools or driving fast down highways at night. Recklessness is really a kind of fearfulness, a need to prove ourselves by doing dangerous or stupid things (like fighting pointless wars).
No, fear I think is at its heart the failure to believe that God loves us; that, as we say in baptism, we are marked as Christ’s own forever. If I belong to Jesus, then really nothing can destroy me; I have nothing ultimately to fear. I am free. Free to trust in God, to hope, to love, to welcome the future with joy. The Orthodox have a name for the Virgin Mary: the Theotokos, the God-bearer. The fruit of Mary’s fearlessness was her bearing of God. Well, we too, if we accept that we truly belong to Christ, that we are truly God’s beloved children – we too can be Theotokoi, God-bearers.
Bill Wiedrich, who was the Suffragan Bishop of Chicago back when I was in that diocese, started his ministry in Northern Michigan. He was sent to be vicar of the tiny mission in Sault St. Marie, on the Canadian border. The winters were long and bitterly cold. Unemployment, alcoholism, depression – all were terrible problems in the community. The little church was failing, dispirited, fearful. No watching, no waiting, no hoping, no praying. Fr. Wiedrich’s job included getting to church before dawn on winter mornings to put coal on the furnace. One Sunday morning as he walked through the dark snowy streets, an angel (as it were) came to him with a bold idea. Fortunately, as Bishop Wiedrich liked to say in telling the story, there wasn’t time to check the idea out with the Bishop of Northern Michigan, so Wiedrich just went ahead and did what the angel told him to.
At Communion that morning, he gave each person two hosts. One, he told them, they were to consume as usual. The other, they were to take out with them after church and give to the first person they met – telling them what it was, the Body of Christ. The people were doubtful, fearful, but a few at least of them did as their priest asked. They reported to their friends that it was actually kind of fun, kind of amazing what responses they received.
The next week and the next week Fr. Wiedrich did the two host thing again, and each time more people gave their second host away. Pretty soon word got around Sault St. Marie and people began just to “happen to be” outside the little church when the service ended, to get this Body of Christ. And then they began to come inside. And little by little that church came alive. “Be strong, do not fear! Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped, then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” God-bearers. We can all be God-bearers. Do not fear!