It didn’t get any better when she was born. As an infant, I worried that I might swaddle her too tightly. I was afraid when she awoke in the night unexpectedly. Fevers terrified us. When she was learning to walk, every fall came with a spasm of fright. I watch her run around with her toddler energy and I have to swallow down the fears that she’s going to crash through a window or hurdle headfirst over an obstacle and crack her skull. I’m constantly managing a steady river of fear for her.
A few weeks ago, Curly Fries and I went for a walk around our apartment complex on an unseasonably warm evening. When we got to the tennis courts, she excitedly beckoned to me and said, “Want to go on an adventure with me?”
Well, what parent turns that down? Sure! She ran to a far outside corner of the court where a retaining wall has been built into a hill. A twelve-foot fence borders the court, and in this corner where the hill is graded down, the brick retaining wall gradually gets taller as if moves around the fence. It starts at half a foot, then a foot, and so on until it’s about four feet tall. It’s perfect for a kid who likes to walk along the edges of things.
She rather quickly hopped up the wall and began talking about bears and our need to be quiet. I followed her with amusement and fascination. She took a few steps up the wall, then turned to me and shushed me. “Don’t let the bear hear you!” she whispered. Then she turned and hurried along the wall.
I was enjoying this lovely explorative play so much that I wasn’t careful with her. She scurried along the wall at its highest point. The fence along the tennis court was close enough to the wall to only allow six or seven inches, but she slipped and lost her footing, falling down into the gap between the wall and the fence. She caught herself on the fence with one arm, and as she held on tightly to keep from falling the rest of the way to the ground, she frantically shouted, “Help me, Daddy!”
I quickly scooped her up and into my lap. Thick, fat tears poured down her cheeks as she began to wail. I checked for damage – just a minor scratch on the inside of her shin – but she made it suddenly clear that it wasn’t physical pain that bothered her. “You didn’t catch me, Daddy!” she cried. “You let me fall!”
There are plenty of times when children blame parents for things that aren’t anybody’s fault. I know my child has certainly tried to pin responsibility on me for things I didn’t do, or petulantly blame me when I do something necessary that she doesn’t like. But this accusation cut me through the heart. I hadn’t caught her. I wasn’t paying attention. I’d been having so much fun, I’d forgotten to be afraid for her.
In a moment of desperate creativity, hoping to salvage her sense of my failure, I responded to her by saying, “But you didn’t fall.”
Her crying slowed and she looked up at me. “What?”
“I didn’t need to catch you,” I continued. “You caught yourself. When you started to fall, you grabbed onto the fence and kept yourself from falling. So I didn’t need to catch you, because you caught yourself.”
The tears on her cheek froze and I could see her eyes narrow in thought. “Yeah,” she said slowly. “I did. I catch myself.” Then she laughed and suddenly she hopped up and continued her adventure. “C’mon! There’s a bear!” This new realization of self-empowerment apparently helped her forget to feel afraid of what might happen to her without a parent to catch her.
The phrase “Do not be afraid” is in the Bible fifty-nine times, and the phrase “Do not fear” appears forty-one times. “Do not be afraid” is uttered four times just in the birth narratives, three of them in Luke, all of them spoken by angels. It’s a common phrase to come from an angel’s mouth. I assume that beginning your proclamation with “Do not be afraid” is standard training for angels. Angels are scary, I suppose. When the angel Gabriel appears to the priest Zechariah, the scripture says, “When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him” (Luke 1:12). When an angel appeared to the shepherds, “the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified” (Luke 2:9). In both cases, the first thing these angels say is “Do not be afraid.”
But the other angelic appearance is different. This is when the angel Gabriel appears to Mary:
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.’” (Luke 1:26-30)
It’s as if Gabriel forgets his training: the first thing out of his mouth is “Greetings, favored one!” He remembers to tell her not to be afraid, but he needn’t; Mary wasn’t afraid. She was perplexed, but she wasn’t fearful. There’s an odd air of joyfulness and expectation that has both Gabriel and Mary forgetting to be afraid. The occasion was just too exciting.
Advent is a time for not being afraid. Joy and hope make us not afraid. Joy causes us to forget our fear, and hope is when we remember it but choose to let it go. I worry for my child every day, but in my stronger moments – and they come more often now than they did four years ago – I am hopeful of the promise of the continually unfolding gift my child is becoming. When she breaks into song about baby Jesus or spontaneously kisses me or genuinely thanks me without prompting, I forget everything but my joy. I forget how scary the world is, I forget that I can’t ever really be there to catch her, I forget that the she is going to get hurt. Even when I remember these things, I have hope in the persistence of healing, in her own developing capacity to catch herself.
At the end of Luke’s birth narratives, there is a remarkably poignant and intimate moment. The shepherds have visited the infant Jesus and gone away praising the newborn Christ. And then Luke tells us, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). I know how Mary felt. In the darknesses to come, Mary knew to treasure her joy and hope, to hold on to those blessings in the face of all the frightening things that awaited them outside that stable. I, too, treasure the swelling of joy within my heart as I watch the hopes and fears of all the years meet in the exuberant play of a child.