an angel’s words

be. not. afraid.

This week I’m helping to host a meeting on integration in theological education. A fascinating and important topic for today’s theological schools. But that’s beside my point.

Tonight at dinner I sat next to a professor from a Lutheran seminary. We got into an interesting discussion about conflicting understandings of the Gospel message. Earlier in the day’s meetings, someone commented that Catholic seminaries often struggle with different interpretations of the Vatican II documents: whether they call for the church to be engaged with the world, in the world, or whether they demand a more wary stance, that the church must be protected from the world. He wondered whether I, as a Catholic, thought that was a fair assessement – that groups interpreted the same document so differently?

“Oh yes,” I said. I have seen that tension manifest itself quite clearly in the big tent that is the Catholic Church.

He went on to tell me that when he was a new faculty member, he learned about his institution’s culture by meeting with the elders of the community: older faculty members who knew the politics and power plays that made the seminary what it was. The wise ones all told him a very similar story: that there were two camps in the school – one that wanted the seminary to be engaged in the world and one that wanted the seminary to be protected from the world. Their warring back-and-forth was what made the school the contentious place it was when he joined the faculty.

I offered that perhaps these opposing strains of Christianity were present from the beginning, that there have always been Christians reading the Gospel in different ways and fighting over their interpretations.

“Maybe,” he sighed. “But don’t you just want to take people by the hand, and lead them back to the words of the Gospel, and say, ‘Be not afraid! I am bringing you good news of great joy!'”

I had to smile at the Advent angel’s echoes. But his words gave me pause.

Fear does drive us – our decisions as individuals and as institutions. We want to be in control, we want to know. And when we cannot fully control or know, our fear tears us apart inside and outside.

We cannot function in healthy, loving ways as individuals or as the Body of Christ when we are driven by fear instead of trust in the boundless goodness of God. If the angel’s call is to be not afraid, then fear is incompatible with the Christian life.

Be not afraid. Angels speak these same words over and over again throughout our Advent Scriptures. To Zechariah. To Mary. To Joseph. Ordinary people who struggle to seize the impossible, who wonder how to trust God. But each one comes to accept God’s call and God’s gift with courage and faith, not fear.

There are plenty of things I fear. Things I seek to control and know. Places I fail to trust to God. Letting the angel’s words echo in my mind after dinner tonight led me to see this as my Advent challenge for the days that remain. To be not-afraid. To believe. To hope. To let go.

For nothing will be impossible for God.

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