Memory and Fear and Great Joy

Photo by Angelo Moleele on Unsplash

“But the angel said, ‘Do not be afraid; I have good news for you: there is great joy coming to the whole people.”1

Who knows what angels look like? In my imagination they are twenty feet tall, as solid as brass, beautiful enough to cause awe. The wings are an afterthought, purely symbolic, a nice touch to disguise the fact that an angel can materialize next to you without a sound, every feather in place. They don’t travel — they appear.

In the gospels, angels create fear in people, but they don’t mean to. We know this because the first thing the angel says in the Gospel of Luke is,“Be not afraid.” The angel says this to everyone it visits: to Joseph, to Zechariah, to the shepherds, and of course to Mary.

Unintentional fear. It would charge the space between angel and human like an electric grid. It would block the angel’s greeting before it could be uttered. The angel would begin, a half-smile on its face. Then raise a hand in sympathy. Do not be afraid, it would say. Please. I have good news. There is great joy coming for the whole people.

Can we command someone not to be afraid? Fear always has an object, fixed at a point in time, a location that can be, must be, triangulated urgently. A person is afraid of snakes or bombs or the ocean. Only rarely are we afraid of fear and then only because we’re afraid to name its shape. Or we whistle in the dark, saying, “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.”

We remember what we fear, but more to the point, we fear what we remember. Simple then: just forget.

Yet, what rings in my head on my predawn walks in this winter of our discontent are verses from Psalm 137:

“How could we sing the Lord’s song

in a foreign land?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

let my right hand wither away;

let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth

if I do not remember you,

if I do not set Jerusalem

above my highest joy.” (Ps 137:4-6 NEB)

There is much about the year 2020 that I would like to forget, but the things I would like to forget have been the fears of many this past year. They will be remembered as a way to honor those who suffered them. I will remember them as wildfires in our sojourn through this alien land.

Children in cages. An administration contemptuous of science. A constant assault on democratic ideals and constitutional requirements. The destruction of truth. Lying as a form of discourse. The continued grinding down of the human dignity of people of color, of women. Needless deaths in the thousands; individual deaths without justice. A fascination with the bizarre. The cult of a false messiah. A form of Christianity that embraces ruthless power and nationalism.

The stone in our shoe is how much remembrance of the past will shape our future. How much should we remember? Do we carry these filthy rags with us? Do we forget our losses and press ahead or should there be an accounting before we move on?

The past is nailed to memory, the future is susceptible to fear — but no less open to hope. If that is so, should the last four years be stripped off and tossed to one side like a dirty garment? If remembering is a form of knowing, what have we learned?

While we cannot change the past, the future is open but costly, agonizingly bought at the price of lives. Yet, knowledge is not all that is needed to create a future. Surely there must be wisdom entwined with passion. How shall we remember Zion? How shall we sing the Lord’s song?

Because of Advent, because of the Incarnation, at the brink of a new year we are invited to “be not afraid.” Afraid of Covid and its insidious reach. Afraid of sudden unemployment, eviction, illness without adequate medical coverage. Or any coverage at all.

Fear of crowds, fear of other people, fear of isolation and loneliness. Fear of desertion.

Fear for the millions who are sick, dying, or working to keep others from dying. Fear for the children whose meals are as uncertain as where they will sleep tonight. Fear for the asylum seeker, locked in her detention cell, waiting for Covid without medical help.

Fear of those who are callous, indifferent, and powerful enough to spin your life into an abyss you’ll never get out of. Fear for this country: caught in traps of its own making, gnawing its own flesh, struggling to tear itself free.

“Be not afraid,” says the angel. “I bring good news, and great joy for all the people.” We are those people, some of the many. What the angel announces is a new source of joy. It is no longer tied to a place, as holy as Jerusalem and the temple was, but to a person, an experience, and a community. It becomes portable, carried within us and shared with each other.

It is a joy as quiet as it is enduring. It is an undercurrent, rather than a ripple across the surface. It survives drought and flood, rising as blessing in the midst of adversity. Though it pierced the heart of Mary it topped up the heart of Simeon, an old man who could die joyfully, having lived to see the promised One. At times, through tears, it causes us to cry, ‘How long, O Lord?’ At other times we walk in silence.

“It is the ineffable from which we draw the taste of the sacred, the joy of the imperishable,” said Abraham Heschel.2 It draws us to the beating heart of the Spirit through whom we are brought near, no longer strangers clutching our alien gods.

  1. Luke 2:10 NEB.
  2. Heschel, Abraham Joshua. Man is Not Alone. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951, p. 9.