I have experienced several Christmases that were filled with fear. One that I don’t really remember, but that I know I internalized, was when I was a toddler.
My parents were Methodist missionaries in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). We were in temporary housing while we waited for our home on the mission station to be ready and so we were several miles from any of the other missionary families. There was a great deal of fighting in the area because rebel soldiers were trying to take over the Katanga province where we were. They were fighting to succeed from the country. Whenever our gas powered generator fired up, it sounded like a truck of rebel soldiers was coming to get us. We couldn’t go anywhere for weeks, and it was impossible to buy even the simplest of Christmas gifts, so my parents just wrapped up and regifted things that they had given one another (and me) in the past. I struggle with fear and anxiety to this day, as a result of some of my early childhood experiences.
When I was in college, my father was the Executive Director of a Methodist mission station in the Appalachian mountains and he had made some enemies among the people who were making and selling moonshine in the area. I remember one Christmas eve when we were in a small mountain church with maybe 40 other worshipers. A teenage boy was doing his best to play some Christmas hymns; the candles were lit; it was peaceful. But then we heard what sounded like gunshots and yelling. It scared us to death! Suddenly the back door opened and someone threw, what we didn’t know then were just firecrackers, into the church. When they started exploding, the teenager playing the piano was terrified, but my mom encouraged him to, “Just keep playing. It will be alright.” So, while some of the men went out to see what was happening, he just kept playing. And it was alright. But for a few minutes we all felt what it must feel like for Christians around the world who are truly persecuted.
Two weeks before Christmas in 2018, I went in for a routine mammogram and found out that I had an aggressive form of breast cancer. The doctor said that I could wait until after Christmas, but that Chemo needed to begin very soon. The last few days leading up to Christmas were filled with doctor’s appointments and genetic testing. It was hard not to be afraid, not to make my children afraid, that Christmas.
There is so much to be afraid of in this world. If you are Jewish, you are afraid; if you are Palestinian, you are afraid. If you are a minority or LGBTQ+, you are afraid. We can’t even go to an outlet mall without worrying about a mass shooting. My sister told me just today that, when she was taking my niece to school this morning, someone cut her off in traffic, and then looked at her and my neice, and mimed shooting them with his hand before he sped off. The world is, and always has been, a scary place.
But there is a popular phrase that I love. “Fear is a view of the future without God in it.” We are afraid when we think that we are on our own in this mess. But that’s the thing…we aren’t. The whole point of Christmas is that God IS with us! What we celebrate at Christmas is the fact that God chose to enter into humanity so He could SHOW us that He is with us. In fact Emanuel means “God with us.” That doesn’t mean that everything will always be OK in this present age, but it does mean that the Creator of all that ever was, or ever will be, is the one who is saying to us “Do not be afraid. I will help you” (Isaiah 41:10 &13).
I had a conversation with a friend this week who is facing a scary diagnosis for one of her children. This friend is a woman of strong faith and she was looking back and remembering all of the times in the past when she had been afraid; all of the times that she could see, now in retrospect, that God had absolutely been with her every step of the way. She knows that He is with her now.
No matter what we are afraid of, no matter what we are struggling with, no matter what is breaking our hearts, God really and truly is with us. That’s what we celebrate when we celebrate Christ’s birth. That’s what Christmas is about.
Emanuel! God is with us!