Every place I have lived has had a town or town that people look down upon. Sometimes it is because the community is poor or unsophisticated, sometimes it is because of the town’s hosting a prison or a mental health hospital. More than once I was told that my actions might send my mother to the town where the state mental hospital was located.
One nice thing about being a priest, and not being too close to your parents geographically, is that you get to talk about them in the homily. While my parents know I talk about them sometimes in my homilies, it is easier to do so when you’re thousands of miles from where they live. Today’s readings reminded me of the time that my mother, for the first time in her life, took a flight to visit her sister who lived in Florida. Not having flown in a very large plane before, my mother asked me what the experience would be like. Answering honestly, I said that I didn’t think she would like takeoffs and landings, but that once we got in the air, things wouldn’t be so bad.
Now it’s important to remember that during these days it was still possible to smoke cigarettes on an airplane. And so my parents, seated in the back of the plane, which was the smoking section wearing two different seats than my brother and I who were in the non-smoking section. Course today we realized that technically we were all in the smoking section, thanks to the airplane,s recirculated air. True to my words, my mother did not much enjoy the takeoffs and landings. Unfortunately, the flight from Newark, New Jersey, to Jacksonville, Florida, was among the roughest I’ve ever been on. The plane was flying into 500 mile an hour headwinds, and the plane bounced around in a way that helped to provide an experience of what the ball was like a pinball machine. In fact, I don’t believe we were allowed to unfasten our seat belts at any point during the flight. Needless to say, my mother was filled with more than a little bit of anxiety.
So many experiences of the divine Scripture, begin with the angel, or the Lord, saying to the individual, “Be not afraid.” Given that it was common Jewish understanding that to see God met one died, such a command was often needed. Furthermore, simply being in the presence of an infinite God can be unsettling. It can be easy to forget that God is infinite. Faced with such awesomeness, we can be reminded by comparison we are rather insignificant.
Despite my words to my mother, “Be not afraid”, my mother was afraid. She had good reason to be afraid. My admonition “Be not afraid” proved to be unreliable. I could not deliver on my promise the flight would be far easier once we were in the air. I was not dependable. Yet when God says “Be not afraid”, we know he has a track record of dependability. Before the visit from the Angel, Mary could not have imagined what her life would be like. And even with the appearance of the Angel, she needed to be reassured by God that his words were trustworthy and dependable. her trust in God, even when she did not understand the implications of that trust, and the consequences of her yes to God, was unwavering. She believed God was trustworthy. She was right.
After such horrible events in Newtown, Connecticut, our trust in God can be shaken. We too need to be reassured that everything will be okay. because we know that God is dependable, unlike the assurances we sometimes give each other, we know God is reliable. This is because time and again God has proven his reliability. We know of no event more strikingly convincing than the death of Jesus on the cross. His death frees us from death, and while there still are many events where we become afraid, it is life death and resurrection of Jesus that assures us we need not be afraid. Unlike me, God keeps his promises. God is dependable.
As we prepare for the commemoration of the Nativity of Jesus Christ, we know that once again we stand in need of God’s gentle promise that we need not be afraid because God is faithful. The coming of Jesus into our world in human form, reminds us that in the face of violence peace is possible. We need not be afraid. The coming of Jesus into our world in human form, reminds us that in the face of hunger God fills us. We need not be afraid. The coming of Jesus into our world of human form, reminds us that in sickness, suffering, and death, we stand in the healing presence of Jesus, the one who conquered death by his own death on the cross. We need not be afraid.
As we get ready to commemorate that dark cold night in Bethlehem, when God humbled himself to take on human form, to become one like us in all things but sin, we are reminded of the fidelity and love of God. We are reminded, that in spite of our sin, God never gives up on us, rather extends to us all the gift of mercy and forgiveness. The little baby born in such humble surroundings reminds us that God does everything possible to help us enter into his divine life. This Christmas, we are reminded, that even more than Hallmark, God cares enough to send the very best.