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Another Perspective

Christmas and the Fear of New Life

One aspect of the Christmas story that is often ignored is the portion told in Matthew 1:18-2:3. These verses recount how Mary became pregnant prior to marrying Joseph and Joseph’s decision to discreetly remove her from his life. Before he could, Joseph had a dream in which an angel of the Lord told him not to be afraid to marry Mary. He was told Mary’s baby, conceived by the Holy Spirit, was a boy. All of this was to fulfill a prophecy given in Isaiah 7:14 that says a virgin will conceive and bear a son whose name shall be “Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

Matthew continues his account of the Nativity with an unexpected twist not recorded elsewhere. It is Herod’s response to the news of Jesus' birth. Herod was king of Judea, serving at the pleasure of Augustus, the first Roman emperor. Matthew tells us when King Herod learned of Jesus’ birth, “he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” Because Herod was afraid of this new life he ordered all the boys who lived in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and younger to be killed. Jesus wasn't killed because Joseph had a dream that alerted him to Herod’s intentions. It is clear that Joseph took seriously the messages his dreams conveyed.

What is often ignored in Matthew’s narrative - and what I want to highlight here - is that fear is the frequent response to a calling to new life, to an awareness that “God is with us”. Matthew uses the historical circumstances of the first century to make an universal psychological point: as much as we may yearn for a closer connection with God, when it is offered to us, fear is frequently our response, along with the impulse to deny it existence.

I recently saw this in my counseling practice. Two men, each financially successful beyond most people’s needs, came to me unhappy, restless, and yearning for something more from life. Each heads his own business and has a family that benefits from his success. Yet in spite of living the American dream, they found the constant pressure of having to generate a large income was a burden they no longer wanted. Each would immediately stop what he was doing and devote himself to something new if only his wife and children would support him in a major downsizing in lifestyle. However,neither man felt free to ask – or even to discuss – this possibility with their wife and family. Instead each chose to continue their moneymaking practices, suffering in silence. This is what fear of a new life can do.

When I was doing research for my previous blog, I came across a couple of observations that speak to this predicament. The first observation comes from Friedrich Nietzsche: “None climb so high as he who knows not where his destiny leads him.” If these men can find the courage to respond to the new life beckoning to them, who knows what potential fulfillment they might find?

The second observation is from C.G.Jung: “ Anyone who refuses life must stifle his desire to live.” Jung’s observation describes exactly what these two men have chosen. Like Herod "and all Jerusalem" before them, when new life came calling, they could not let go of the status quo. It is fear that prevents them from embracing the new.

My Christmas prayer for these men and for each of us is to find within ourselves the mettle to pursue Life where it leads us. The 20th century Christian theologian Paul Tillich spoke of this as having “the courage to be.” Robert Frost referred to it as taking the road less traveled.

There are a couple of good reasons to believe we can do it. First, Christmas is the story of God taking the initiative to reach out to us. We don’t have to be good or dutiful or anything in order for God to be with us. Second, God does not quit on us when we allow fear to stop us from pursuing the new. The restlessness, lack of satisfaction in life, the yearning for something more doesn’t go away. It is an indication that God is still with us, prodding us toward the new, calling us to be more than we currently are.

Merry Christmas!
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