In the narratives of Jesus’ birth, one of the most striking elements is the angelic imperative “Do not be afraid!” It sounds forth time and again like a musical refrain. When Gabriel approaches the Blessed Virgin (Luke 1:26-28), when an angel visits Joseph in a dream (Matt. 1:20-21), when angels appear before the shepherds (Luke 2:8-15), the message is the same: “do not be afraid!” Of all the details concerning the birth of Jesus, why is this one alone so frequently repeated? It no doubt says something about the initial reactions of Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds, but it is also a declaration that reaches deeply into the biblical narrative, beyond the history of ancient Israel, and toward the core of shared human nature.
In the opening chapters of Genesis, one finds an important contrast: God is in the beginning, but fear is near the beginning (Gen. 1:1; 3:10). After partaking from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (whatever this might mean), Adam and Eve see that they are naked. They cover themselves with fig leaves and when God enters the garden, they hide. God calls out, “Where are you?” Adam responds, “I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself” (Gen. 3:9-10). It is curious that God does not proceed to tell Adam and Eve that they have sinned. Rather, God casts them out of the garden, cursing them with pain, toil, and above all, mortality. Allusive, the narrative is rich in symbolism even when devoid of detail. Knowledge, fear, and shame appear inseparable, and God disallows their presence in paradise.
As one biblical book follows another, the experience of fear — particularly in response to the divine — stalks the narrative. The people of Israel feel it at the foot of Mount Sinai, even after following Moses out of Egypt; the prophets feel it in the midst of their visions. Generation after generation, fear appears as a coarse thread, woven in all sorts of wayward ways into the unhappy tapestry of human nature and experience. Unavoidable and inevitable, even when necessary, it is far from desirable. Fear does not define us as an external force: it is part of who and what we are.
Several epistles in the New Testament elaborate upon the same theme. This is especially true of St. John’s first letter, in which he locates fear as the opposite of love. He writes, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). It is tempting to sentimentalize this by expecting something instantaneous to emerge from within love’s event horizon. Such is the stuff of pop song revelries and adolescent longings. We all know this desire, and it conveys an important if partial truth. Love is both redemptive and transformative. And yet, John also writes that human love is incomplete because it is, at its best, undergoing growth. “If we love one another,” he writes, “God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12). As it is being perfected, it is not yet perfect. A similar view can be found in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. He begins his hymn to love with the most simple but uncomfortable of affirmations: “love is patient” (1 Cor. 13:4). If love stands opposite to fear, then fear must be impatient. Any act of love that expects immediate results has mixed something of love with something of fear. Perhaps the fear in question is that of failure, as if the lack of a desired result might indicate that our love, like a broken appliance, has somehow failed to work. But love is not technological. It is neither made nor used, but given and (one hopes) received.
“Do not be afraid!” The angels’ announcement will ring out this Advent season in churches across the world. As their inspired words resound, we should also discern in them a warning: love is called to endure. Such is the work of perfection, perfecting those who love at least as much as those who are loved. For love to truly be, it must prepare to be a remarkably slow burn.