The meaning of Christmas is easily lost in the glitter and hype that fill our days for weeks and months at this time of year. Much about the Christmas season is cozy and appealing. Much else about it is shallow and consumeristic. But what is the true meaning of Christmas? For me, it is a reminder that, because of Christ, we can live with confidence and joy in the midst of uncertainty and brokenness.
Do Not Be Afraid
The angels that we read about in the first chapter of Matthew and the first chapters of Luke shared two messages consistently. The first was Do not be afraid. An angel spoke these words to Joseph (Matthew 1:20), to Zechariah (Luke 1:13), to Mary (Luke 1:30), and to the shepherds (Luke 2:10).
For various reasons, these people were fearful. They were also waiting. All of them, as Jews, were waiting for deliverance from the Romans; Joseph, Mary and Zechariah also found themselves waiting for the angels’ promises to come true. Henri Nouwen has written about the difficulty of waiting combined with fear: “One of the most pervasive emotions in the atmosphere around us is fear. People are afraid—afraid of inner feelings, afraid of other people, and also afraid of the future. Fearful people have a hard time waiting, because when we are afraid we want to get away from where we are. But if we cannot flee, we may fight instead. Many of our destructive acts come from the fear that something harmful will be done to us….People who live in a world of fear are more likely to make aggressive, hostile, destructive responses than people who are not so frightened.”1
The angel’s words to “be not afraid” are timely. Still, these words can seem like one more burden if you are already heaped with fear and anxiety. I appreciate these insights from Parker Palmer in his book Let Your Life Speak: “As one who is no stranger to fear, I have had to read those words with care, so as not to twist them into a discouraging counsel of perfection. ‘Be not afraid’ does not mean we cannot have fear. Everyone has fear…Instead, the words say we do not need to be the fear we have. We do not need to lead from a place of fear, thereby engendering a world in which fear is multiplied.” Fear does not need to define us, or direct us.
Good News of Great Joy
The second message the angels brought was one of joy. To Zechariah, the angel said, “(John) will be a joy and delight to you. His birth will make many people very glad” (Luke 1:14). To the shepherds, the angel announcing Jesus’ birth said, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10).
What is joy? Though often confused with happiness, joy is different—it is deeper, and less connected to our circumstances. In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis described joy as “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” He continues, that joy “must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again…I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.”
“Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is”—is this, perhaps, the reason that we pursue pleasure so doggedly? We look for physical comforts; distract ourselves with meaningless activities; eat to satiate the emptiness. Yet these do not bring joy—and they may even make us deaf and blind to true joy.
I have wondered, is joy the opposite of fear? In other words, do we experience joy and fear in an inverse relationship, so that more of one means less of the other? I don’t know the answer. But I do know that fear can steal our hope, love, peace and joy.
Light in the Darkness
This year, my family prepared an Advent wreath for our church’s worship services during the Sundays of Advent and Christmas Day. We rolled beeswax candles and assembled the wreath. The four outer candles in our wreath represent hope, love, peace and joy. Each week of Advent, one more candle is lit. The middle candle, the Christ candle, is lit on Christmas Day.
This Advent practice of lighting candles is a concrete way to acknowledge that we are waiting. We do not yet fully experience hope, love, peace or joy. The candles are also a visible reminder that the light of Christ pushes back the darkness of fear.
Fear whispers, It’s hopeless. Nothing will change. But the Bible reminds us, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). And “hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:5).
Fear whispers, No one really loves you. But John reminds us, “By this we know love, because [Jesus] laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:16).
Fear whispers, Conflict is here to stay; get used to it, and be ready to fight! But Jesus whispers, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27).
Fear whispers, The world is colorless. Joy is an illusion. Jesus reminds us, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11).
This Christmas season, you may find yourself full of fear and lacking joy, despite the angel’s words. Here are some ideas to fight fear and pursue joy:
- Acknowledge areas of fear and shame in your life—but remember that they do not need to lead you, or define you.
- Remember that in Christ, you are loved, forgiven, and set free before God. If you are feeling discouraged, read Romans 8:28-39. God has made us right with himself. Now, nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. “I am absolutely sure that not even death or life can separate us from God’s love. Not even angels or demons, the present or the future, or any powers can do that. Not even the highest places or the lowest, or anything else in all creation can do that. Nothing at all can ever separate us from God’s love because of what Christ Jesus our Lord has done” (Romans 8:38, 39).
- Remind yourself regularly of the promises in Scripture. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22).
- John Piper has a helpful list of “Fifteen Tactics for Joy.” Among his advice is to “get the rest, exercise, and proper diet that your body was designed by God to have.”
This Christmas, I wish for you a solid assurance of the love and presence of Christ, to dethrone fear and to impart a deep and abiding sense of joy. “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).
“Waiting for God,” pages 27 and 28 in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas ↩