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 three year-old call it their “blankie.” My two-year old calls it “bankie!” 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 the illusion of an undifferentiated connection with the whole is reduced to just the mother, who “brings the world” to the infant. The baby’s inarticulate desire is translated to screaming in the middle of the night; screaming in the middle of the night is met with the faithful mother who comes to satisfy the desire; the mother is the child’s “security blanket” from the world full of hunger pains.
But eventually, the child must be disillusioned if he or she is going to make it in the world. As it’s been said, the parent’s job is “to teach the child how to live with God and without you.” The child must learn not only that mom isn’t going to be around forever to “bring the world to us” but also that the world that will be brought to us is sometimes not the world we had hoped for. Sometimes the real world it is precisely the world we feared it might be.
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 “blankie.” In fact, 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 “blankie” we take to our death bed. We hold on to the illusion because between recessions, ISIS, corrupt leaders, teenagers texting and driving, old people texting and driving, not to mention the inevitability of death, letting go of the illusion would mean holding on to exactly nothing, unless you are a follower of Jesus. In that case, letting go of the illusion would mean holding on to exactly nothing but the claim of Christmas: that the God who is sovereign over life and death has sent his Son to be our security in life and in death, and that Christ is coming back to “bring the world” to us (Rev. 21).
But I must confess that this promise isn’t all that comforting, at least not like a blankie is comforting. This, after all, is the same one of whom Mary said, “His mercy is for those who fear him.” Nobody fears their blankie; they use it to hide from their fears, to hide “under the covers” from hellish monsters. So it’s a terrifying prospect to walk through life empty-handed, armed only with the assurance that the One we fear most is the Same who 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 of the illusion.
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 about feeling out of control but also about not trusting the one you think is in control. It’s the little boy who is afraid of his father, the little boy hiding under the covers from him and all the other monsters in the world. This is what the Bible calls 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. In fact, 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 father’s unrelenting arms, never even considering the prospect of his father dropping him. He is the strongest of all men not only because of the immensity of his strength but, more importantly, because he is in perfect control over his strength. That is why he is not a monster. His temper doesn’t demon-possess him; 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 jumping into the arms of someone whose strength cannot be trusted, either because his strength is too weak to catch him or because his will is too weak not to harm him.
Such gods and fathers and leaders and others may be stronger than the boy, but they are not worth the boy’s fear, because they do not compare to the strength of his true God and the good-will of his true Father. Fear the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the only one who can catch you when you fall, the only one whose will is to work all things together for your good, even when you are bad.
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 jump headlong into his arms.
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 blankie. 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 blankie, he did find freedom from fear. He just waited till the appropriate time. He waited till he found something worth holding onto: the One who came to catch him when falls, the One who is bringing the world to him, indeed, to us all.
Just notice the exact moment he drops his blankie.
Now go and do likewise.