Advent Reflection 11: Fear

An excerpt from The Magnificat: Mary’s Song of Praise

“And his mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation” (Lk. 1:50).

My five year-old and two year-old call it their “blankey.” My one-year old calls “eeeeh!” (and points). Charlie Brown’s best friend Linus called it his “security and happiness blanket” (Good Grief, More Peanuts, 1956). Child psychologists refer to it as a “comfort object” or “transitional object,” often referring to a (literal) “security blanket” but sometimes to a stuffed animal or other such item. These are objects that are typically used in early childhood as children begin to develop self-awareness and a sense of relative independence. Newborns see the world as an extension of themselves, but soon that illusion is reduced to just the mother, who “brings the world” to the infant. Desire is translated to screaming in the middle of the night; screaming in the middle of the night becomes the faithful mother who is there to satisfy the desire. But eventually, the child must necessarily be disillusioned if s/he is going to make it in the world. The child must learn not only that mom isn’t going to be around forever to bring the world to us but also the world that will be around often isn’t the one we’d hoped for.

This is where blankies and passies and teddies come in handy. It’s about having something familiar to hold onto in a world that often forces the unfamiliar upon us. Ambulances are stuffed full of “emergency blankets” to give to victims of trauma, not because trauma victims are necessarily cold, but because there are times we all need a “blankey.”  Indeed, after polling over 6,000 people trying to track down the owners of about 75,000 stuffed animals in 452 hotels, the hotel chain Travelodge discovered that 35 percent of British adults still sleep with a teddy bear. Life is scary, especially for adults.

That’s why we prefer the illusion. It’s also why we refer to retirement funds as “security blankets,” which is just another way of talking about the “blankey” we take to our death bed. We hold on to the illusion because between recessions, ISIS, corrupt leaders, teenage texting and driving, old-age texting and driving, not to mention the inevitability of death, letting go of the illusion would mean holding on to exactly nothing, except the claim of Scripture that God is in control and, indeed, the promise that Christ is coming to “bring the world” to us.

But I must confess that this promise isn’t all that comforting, at least not like a blankey is comforting. This, after all, is the same one of whom Mary said, “His mercy is for those who fear him.” Nobody fears their blankey; they use it to hide from their fears, to “hide under the covers.” So it’s a terrifying prospect to walk through life empty-handed, armed only with the assurance that the One we fear most is coming for us, like the little boy who daily dreads his father coming home from work, sometimes late from the bar. No wonder it’s hard to let go.

But that’s not the kind of fear we have because that’s not the kind of Father we have. As my good friend, Joe, recently pointed out in an Advent devotional he is writing, fearing the Lord is not the same as being afraid of the Lord. Being afraid is not just about feeling out of control but also about not trusting the one who is in control. It’s the little boy hiding under the covers. It’s the fear of man: 

“The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe. Many seek the face of a ruler, but it is from the Lord that man gets justice” (Prov. 29:25-26).

But the Bible does not speak of the fear of the Lord in this way. Precisely the opposite, in fact:

“In the fear of the Lord one has strong confidence, and his children will have a refuge. The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, that one may turn away from the snares of death” (Prov. 14:26-27).

This is the boy who thinks his father is the strongest man on earth and runs to the door each day to leap headlong into his unrelenting arms, never even thinking twice about the possibility of his father dropping him. And he is the strongest of all men not only because of the immensity of his strength but because he is in perfect control of his strength. He never loses his temper, never comes home late and takes it out on the boy. He uses his strength to hold, not to harm, to embrace, not to abuse. The boy’s reverent fear takes the form of confidence. The only thing he has to fear is turning from his father–and that he should–to jump into the arms of those who are neither strong enough nor good-willed enough to trust with his live. They may be stronger than the boy, but they are not worth the boy’s fear, because they do not compare to the strength or the goodness of his father.

This is the way Scripture speaks of the fear of the Lord. We are called to fear the only One we don’t have to be afraid of, the One who is indeed coming for us, to bring the world to us, as we bring ourselves, open-handed, to him.

So it’s no surprise that when the angels were sent to announce his coming, the first words of their announcement were, “Fear not!” 
In fact, Mary herself was one of the first to hear it (1:30), second only to Zechariah (Lk. 1:13), and then the shepherds (Lk. 2:10). And Jesus himself would say it five more times just in the Gospel of Luke. Fear not, for the One you fear most is coming for you, and he is the One who loves you most fiercely. Indeed, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10), but it’s not the end of wisdom:

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love” (1 Jn. 4:18).

Perhaps, then, we could all learn a little lesson from Linus. Linus was known for being the kid who refused to let go of his blankey. But who can blame him when the alternative is to resort to a life of exchanging one illusion for another, graduating from one fear to the next, but never ultimately finding freedom from fear? But, in fact, Linus did let go of his blankey. He just waited till the appropriate time. He waited till he found something worth holding onto–the One who was bringing the world to him. Advent. 

Just notice the exact moment he drops his blankey.

Now go and do likewise.

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