Sermon by the Rev. Martin B. Copenhaver, December 20, 2020. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications
They come from the same family. They are both pregnant for the first time. They will both give birth to prophets — John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth.
In some respects, however, Elizabeth and Mary could not be more different. One is old; the other is young. One is married; the other is still just engaged. One is the wife of a priest, with privileged position in society; the other is an untutored country girl.
For the one, to be married and unable to conceive is to be the subject of shame and scandal; for the other, to be unmarried and to conceive a child is to be the object of shame and scandal.
Both Elizabeth and Mary are staggered with the news that, contrary to every expectation, they are to be mothers. Both receive this news from a heavenly messenger named Gabriel, who has come fresh from the presence of God. And the word Gabriel speaks to each one in this drama is the same: “Do not be afraid.”
First, the words are spoken to Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah: “Do not be afraid.” Then to Mary: “Do not be afraid.” Later, when Mary’s child is born, to the shepherds in the field: “Be not afraid.” It is Gabriel’s calling card, his greeting, his blessing, his gift.
We do not know much of anything about who the angel Gabriel was (or is). And we can only imagine how he made himself known to the startled characters in this drama. But this I think we can say: He was not very subtle, even for an angel. Zechariah was just minding his business in the temple—that is, tending to his priestly chores in the inner sanctuary—when the figure of Gabriel appears. Gabriel doesn’t ease into the conversation, but gets right down to business: “Do not fear, Zechariah, for your prayer is heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.”
I don’t know which is more unsettling—when countless prayers seem to go unheard, or when a single prayer does make its way to God and back again. Luke reports that Zechariah was struck dumb by the news that his prayer has been answered. He is unable to speak again until the baby is born, which perhaps is not surprising given the nature of the news and the way in which it was delivered.
Then, when he encounters Mary, Gabriel speaks words that might startle a young woman even if they did not come from an angel: “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you! Blessed are you among women!” Maybe, if you are an angel, you know that there is no way to ease into a conversation with a human being, so you don’t even try. Or perhaps Gabriel was so fluttering with the news he had come to share that he couldn’t contain himself, like a winged obstetrician on his first case who is as eager and giddy as the parents are. That is to say, if—as Luke reports — Mary was greatly troubled at the greeting, we do not have wonder why.
Then Gabriel, perhaps seeing the reaction he has stirred, quickly adds, “Do not be afraid.” It is an appropriate reassurance to one who has just seen an angel. And it is also an appropriate reassurance to a young woman who is about to receive the news that she is soon to be a young mother. “Do not be afraid,” an assurance I am sure is often heard in the offices of earthly obstetricians. “Do not be afraid,” even though you do not know what lies ahead. “Do not be afraid,” even though you feel more like your mother’s child than like a child’s mother. “Do not be afraid,” even though this birth, blessed in the eyes of God, is a scandal in the eyes of many people. “Do not be afraid,” even though there is nothing in human experience that can prepare you for this moment.
“Do not be afraid.” That is the messenger’s word to each one in this story. And, eventually, it comes to be embraced by each one. That doesn’t happen all at once. But, over time, the angel’s greeting insinuates itself until Elizabeth is able to greet this news with blessings, Mary is able to sing her songs of praise, and Zechariah finds his voice again and speaks words of prophecy. They held the words, “Do not be afraid,” held them close, until they took up residence in their hearts, enabling them to exchange their fear for faith, and their dread for praise.
“Do not be afraid.” When was the last time anyone said something like that to you and did so with authority? That is, when was the last time someone said something like that to you and you believed it? When you were a child, perhaps, someone might have held you close, blotted your tears, and said, “There is nothing to be afraid of,” and you could believe it.
But, as adults, our fears are more complex and words of reassurance are harder to come by. In fact, we know enough about the way the world works that, if someone tells us not to be afraid, we can become suspicious:
“Ladies and gentleman, this is the captain speaking. You will have noticed that we are experiencing an unusual amount of turbulence in our flight today, but we want to assure you there is absolutely no reason for concern.” Hmm… I wasn’t particularly worried before. But I wonder why he felt the need to tell us that?
“Of course, you can come to the party. It’s nothing to worry about. It’s just a bunch of good friends getting together. Don’t be afraid.” Hmm…
“Do not be afraid.” When was the last time anyone said something like that to you and did so with authority?
This is a dark time. Quite literally, the darkest of times. Tomorrow is the winter solstice. We say it is the shortest day of the year, which is true, but that also means it is the longest night.
Long before the birth of Jesus many ancient cultures had already set aside December 25 as a day of celebration because it was the winter solstice—the darkest time of the year. What better time to have a party? What better way to forget for a time the tight grip of darkness that surrounded them than to sing merry songs?
For the pagans, the winter solstice festival was a time to put aside troubles for a while, to ignore the tightening darkness, to huddle around any small circle of light they could create, perhaps for a moment, to forget the darkness that surrounds them still. It is all over too soon, of course, because the grim realities of life await, but it helps to forget our troubles for a time. So put another log on the fire! Pass the food again! Offer a toast!
Or, as the poet Dylan Thomas wrote in a different context: “Do not go gentle into that good night… rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
I love some of the pagan aspects of this season—the feasting, the revelry, the festive lights, the Christmas songs that don’t even mention Jesus, the ugly holiday sweaters. I love all that—it is a way to tell the darkness to back off, even if only for a moment. But this year, in a time of isolation, we are deprived of many of these little pagan points of light. We are left with the darkness. There is no escaping the darkness this year.
In these days, shadowed by fear and loss, we long for a word to meet us in the darkness, a reassuring word from one who has authority offer it. These days we are implored to “trust the science,” and I do, and I hope you do, as well. But even science is limited in the ways it can address the deepest human hopes and needs. In the end, ultimately, even scientists don’t have the authority to say, “Do not be afraid.” Doctors don’t know the future. They don’t have the antidote to uncertainty. They cannot accompany a patient down every road. None of us can.
So, we look for a word from another source.
Once I was among a group of authors asked to summarize the gospel in a few words. Here is what I came up with: “God gets the last word.”
If I had been asked to expand a bit, I would have said this: Our God is the kind of God who insists on having the last word. The second-to-last word, which can be very powerful, can be given over to something else—evil, disease, oppression, hopelessness, death itself. But our God is the kind of God who insists on having the very last word and that is always a word of healing, a word of liberation, a word of hope, a word of life.
The first word that the messenger from God speaks, “Do not be afraid,” is also God’s last word. In that word, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.”
If we — any of us — are to offer words of strength, of comfort, of assurance, it will be as messengers from another source. “Do not be afraid,” said Gabriel, a messenger. “Peace I leave with you,” said the one whose birth Gabriel foretold, “My peace I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, and neither let them be afraid.”
It is not the words that are said, but the source that gives the words power. The words, “Do not be afraid,” take strong root in the hearts of Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary because they accept that these words come from the only one who has the authority to give such assurance. There is only one who can offer such words in the face of life’s uncertainties and before the certainty of death and do so with authority.
It is striking, in this old story and in new ways each day, that those who let such words of assurance steep in their souls, end up singing praises and offering blessings. In such lives there are deep, resonant echoes of the ancient benediction: “May you fear God so much, that you fear nothing else at all.”