The Byzantine Churches have been in the season of Advent (though not all of them call it that) since November 15. But it may be that you are just beginning Advent this weekend. In any case, all of the Churches are now focusing their attention on the coming anew of Christ at Christmas. So what should be our approach?
As I began re-reading the Gospel of Matthew a little while back, I was somewhat startled to see a message for me: “Joseph…do not fear” (Mt. 1:20). It’s a message that is common enough in Scripture, and certainly has many, even daily, applications. It’s a message that Pope John Paul II offered the world at the beginning of his pontificate. In a world full of war, greed, lust, poverty, and injustice, and in a Church scarred with division, dissent, moral and spiritual confusion, we need to hear this message in its full force as the word of God.
But what is the basis for our acceptance of this word? If you are securely tied to railroad tracks and a train is coming, the words “do not fear” shouted by someone from a safe distance will do little to put your troubled mind at ease. There is, however, one word that brings us peace in our distress, makes it clear that indeed we need not fear: Emmanuel. “God-with-us” is one of the names of Jesus (Mt. 1:23). It is because—and only because—God is with us in the Person of our Savior Jesus Christ that we can overcome the very real fears that are generated by the current crises in Church and world.
Advent is a time of watching and waiting. The world has been in a perpetual Advent since Jesus ascended to his Father, promising to return and take us to where He is. So we can’t necessarily expect an immediate and complete eradication of all the sources of our fears. But we can live in trust, in hope, for God is with us, and our Savior will return in glory—and all injustices will be dealt with, all evils banished to infernal abodes. We don’t have to be consumed by the enervating burden of our frustrated longing for peace and blessedness in this world, because the One through whom all things were made still holds the scroll of human history and destiny, still guides us (however tortuously, it may seem) to the final victory over sin and death.
Pope Benedict XVI offered a similar message to that of Pope John Paul, though with a perhaps unexpected twist: “Be not afraid of Christ!” Why would we be afraid of Christ, Emmanuel, who comes to relieve us of our fears? Perhaps some people may fear Christ because they know that his way is demanding, costly—even though invigorating and life-giving. Perhaps they do not wish to pass through the “narrow gate” or to take up their crosses and follow Him—to lose their lives in order to save them. Maybe they chafe at the thought of personal accountability, having heard that Christ will come, not to save everyone willy-nilly, but to judge the living and the dead, separating the righteous from the evildoers. Or perhaps they simply are aware that He disapproves of their favorite vice and tends to rain on their selfish or immoral parades.
Those with the above fears of Christ ought to turn them into opportunities for repentance, into open doors for enlightenment and occasions for embracing truth, courageously meeting the challenges of life as mature men and women of God. It is not easy, but nothing good is easily achieved in a fallen world. Not to fear Christ, the Savior, God-with-us, is to accept his wisdom for living human life, to welcome the assistance and consolation of his grace when we find ourselves spiritually in arrears (as we will often be, left to our own devices).
There will always be problems in this world. Emmanuel is not primarily a problem-solver but a guiding, protecting, loving Presence in this world and in our souls. He is strength for the journey, comfort for the hard times, hope in struggles with overwhelming odds.
Peace be with you. Spend the coming weeks watching and waiting, handing over your fears to Emmanuel. His name is Jesus, for He will save us from our sins. And that’s the salvation we most desperately need. Do not fear the powers-that-be in the world. Especially do not fear Christ. Rather embrace and follow Him. This Christmas you will recognize it when you see Him: He’s a born Savior.