Throughout Advent and the Christmas season, I like to revisit the infancy narratives of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. There is so much profound food for thought and opportunity for growth in faith that I never tire of reading over these beloved texts, and this year is no exception.
During this time of new opportunities and challenges, in my rereading, I have been struck by how often God, through angels, brings assurance just before someone embarks on a particularly difficult action, a journey of faith, an act of love.
In the Gospel according to Matthew, for example, Joseph is about to divorce Mary “quietly” because he has learned she is with child before they have lived together (1:18-19).
An angel of the Lord comes to him in a dream and tells him, “Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home” and reveals to him the identity of the holy son she carries (1:20). With such assurance, Joseph accepts Mary and sets off on a God-inspired path of marriage.
In Luke 1:8-25, Zechariah is chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and there “the angel of the Lord (Gabriel) appeared to him.” Zechariah is “troubled,” and “fear” comes “upon him.”
But, as with Joseph, the angel tells him, “Do not be afraid,” and assures him that his prayer has been answered; his wife, Elizabeth, although “advanced in years,” will bear a son.
Zechariah questions Gabriel, too fervently perhaps, and the angel tells him he will be “unable to talk” until the pronouncement proves true.
But, even with this perhaps gentle chiding, in the end, the blessed event takes place. Elizabeth conceives a son, John, who will leap in her womb when Mary visits, carrying Jesus (Lk 1:41).
The same angel, Gabriel, assures Mary, too, when she is “greatly troubled” at his surprise appearance and greeting, “Hail, favored one!”
Gabriel’s words, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God,” pave the way for her to receive the angel’s message, say yes, and change the course of human history through humble obedience (Lk 1:26-38).
At each of the moments of decision or action in these passages from Scripture, the angelic counsel, “Do not be afraid,” reaches to us through time and experience to bring encouragement.
In the world and in the more immediate realm of our daily lives, we face situations when we crave those words of comfort and inspiration.
We might hesitate like Joseph or doubt like Zechariah. Like Mary, we might be startled at a sudden crisis, complication, unexpected opportunity to move forward on a different path toward a greater love.
We might doubt our capability to face these or other challenges.
How easy was it for Joseph to put aside his misgivings about Mary at first? How did Zechariah get past his doubt to understand that God was answering a long-offered prayer?
In the presence of an angel, how did Mary look past her humble surroundings and accept the divine favor God blessed her with?
Within the word “encouragement,” so abundantly reflected in the infancy narratives, we find courage. God’s encouragement bridges human doubt and inspires action.
So, when facing tough decisions or twists and turns in life, perhaps it is not what we think we ourselves are capable of understanding, doing or receiving. Rather it is when we take to heart those four powerful words that we are able to take the direction God leads us on.
“Do not be afraid,” says the angel, “for nothing will be impossible for God.”
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Pratt’s website is www.maureenpratt.com.