Be Not Afraid

In late September of 1978 when the Archbishop of Krakow was chosen as the first non-Italian pope in nearly 500 years, the future Saint John Paul II stepped onto the world stage with the words: “Be not afraid.”  His prophetic message echoed that of sacred scripture as the young bishop reigned over the universal Catholic Church from the late 70s into the third Christian millennium reverberating God’s voice which seeks a dwelling place in our hearts. 

The same ancient missive dominates the stories of Christmas.  The infancy narratives begin with an angel of the Lord appearing to the virgin maiden with a similar greeting: “Do not be afraid, Mary, the Lord has found favor with you.”  It is the message that came to Joseph in a dream when an angel told him to be unafraid to follow God’s plan.  It is the message that Zechariah received in the holy of holies and that the shepherds in hills near Bethlehem received when the Savior was born.  But it is not a message unique to angels nor to the infancy stories; it exists throughout the Bible from beginning to end.  It is at the core of what Jesus communicated to His followers: “Fear not, little flock, the kingdom is within you…”  When a storm rose upon the Sea, He said to the disciples, “Don’t be afraid for I am with you…”  When a child died and people were wailing, He said, “Fear is useless what is needed is trust…”

It has been widely noted that the phrase “be not afraid” is the most repeated message in the Bible, appearing in various forms 365 times.  It is there for us each day of the calendar, a constant reminder that God is in control and our job is to trust that He knows what He’s doing; our task is to surrender ourselves to His will for us, as so many documented holy ones have done.  In the darkest days of the year, we greet the beginning of winter, face a new year, and greet an unknown future; our natural tendency is toward anxiety or fear.  It is probably wise to fear that which is ominous or unknown: a diagnosis of cancer, an anonymous threat, insecure prospects for our family…  Many biblical heroes also had good reason to be afraid.  But God and His messengers remind us, through them, that there are greater reasons to trust.

Popular Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr, occasionally comments that religion is lived by people who are afraid of hell (whereas spirituality is lived by people who have had some experience of hell).  I think he means that religious structures and rules, in some ways, seem to be based on avoiding punishment from a judgmental deity far more than receiving grace and mercy from a loving God.  Mary and Joseph brushed up against hellish odds, yet they trusted God to help them navigate the course they traveled.  In life, like our team at Arrowhead Stadium, we can play not to lose rather than playing to win; but that approach usually doesn’t end well.  After forty-five consecutive Italian popes, it’s tough to think that it could be otherwise.  For people who walk in darkness, it is difficult to conceive that light will shine.  For those whose primary motivational factor is fear, it is hard to “be not afraid.”

Yet the Christmas story brings us a clear proclamation that echoes through the ages.  It emphasizes seeking victory rather than avoiding defeat, welcoming mercy rather than hiding from punishment, opening ourselves to faith rather than being trapped by rules or structural mores, inviting Christ to dwell within us rather than having no room at our inn, trusting the voice of an angel rather than rejecting scary possibilities, seeking universal salvation rather than dreading personal condemnation.  This message was brought to the world by Angel Gabriel, by Saint John Paul II, and by many before and since.  Whether the focus is Jesus’ birth or facing a difficult challenge or unknown future, the goal is the same: to find a dwelling place for God within us, even at winter’s solstice when days are darkest.  If we do that, we welcome the Holy Spirit and trust that, together, we can navigate the road ahead into Christ’s wondrous light.

6 thoughts on “Be Not Afraid

  1. Merry Christmas Father Don. You are a very special person and priest. Thank you for Father Thomas who is also very special.

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  2. Thank you for this sorely needed message of be not afraid! I can’t imagine that there is anyone alive who can’t apply it to their lives. At 80 and facing the challenges of aging and of the passing of so many friends, not to mention the thought of my own death, I have to remind myself often “be not afraid”.

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