The Epiphany story, the story of the Wise Men is a story that most of us have heard countless times. We love the image of the learned men from a faraway land traveling over many miles to bring gifts and their reverence to the newly born Messiah. It is a romantic story. And the image of the wise men, animals and shepherds surrounding the baby Jesus in the manger is a heart-warming and comforting holiday scene. But underlying this story is a story that is not comforting at all and is more than a little bit disturbing.
When the wise men from the East came to Jerusalem looking for Jesus, the star didn’t lead them directly to the manger where Jesus lay, as we so often envision it in our minds. What the story actually says is that a rising star led them to know of his birth and they had come to Jerusalem to welcome him and pay him homage. As they are seeking the Messiah, they actually go to King Herod to discover where this newly born child might be. They assume that the king would know where this new king lay. What they did not realize is that Herod would see the birth of a Messiah, a king sent by God, as a threat to himself and his own power. They did not realize that asking Herod, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” would cause Herod to feel fear and that Herod’s fear would bring about the death of all the male children in and around Bethlehem—we don’t read this part of the story when we celebrate the Epiphany.
Herod’s fear causes him to do terrible things. But he isn’t the only one who is afraid in the stories about Jesus’ birth. In Luke, Mary is told by the angel, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” And Mary moves beyond her fear and accepts God’s call for her. In Matthew, Joseph, Mary’s husband, and Jesus’s earthly father, is afraid too. When he discovers that Mary, his fiancé, is pregnant, he plans to send her quietly away. But an angel appears to him in a dream and tells him “Do not be afraid.” Joseph’s fear passes and he does not dismiss Mary and the unborn child from his life. In the Gospel of Luke, the angels tell the shepherds, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” And the shepherds move beyond their fear and are able to go and tell others what they have seen and heard.
I’ve been thinking a lot about fear lately. As I observe the world around me, it seems to me that we are over-all as a culture very afraid right now. And there are some good reasons for this fear. We hear daily about the threats that climate change and global warming are to our current health and the future of our species and all life on our planet. We know that religious fundamentalism and the violence inherent in such movements is on the rise around the world. We regularly witness, through watching the news, homegrown violence and mass shootings by mostly young white American men. We see that our paychecks are not growing at the rate that our parent’s paychecks grew—if they are growing at all. We see the effects that constantly changing technology are having on us and our children and we wonder what it means for our current and future health and happiness. We live in a world that is changing at a rate that is almost impossible to keep up with and we don’t know how to respond or to handle all the change. And perhaps the biggest creator of fear of all, COVID. We are living through a time of pandemic and right now can see no clear way out of this time.
But the thing about fear is this, it is really a great thing when you are facing an immediate threat right here and right now—for example you stumble upon a rattle snake, or a bear is trying to get into your house. Fear in these immediate and life-threatening situations allows you to make very rapid and necessary responses that will probably save your life. But fear is not so great when what you fear does not actually exist right here and right now but is simply something that might possibly happen in the future. Or when the threat is on-going but not immediately life-threatening (such as with climate change and COVID). Fear in the latter case is normal, but if not recognized and managed can actually prevent you from finding creative responses to the challenges being faced. Fear in these cases can actually shut down our prefrontal cortex—the part of our brain that is actually capable of thinking outside of the box and coming up with new solutions to the complex problems we face. When we live from a place of fear of perceived things and let this run our lives without thought or management, we react as though every possible challenge or change we face is a rattlesnake about to be stepped on or a bear trying to break into our house.
I’ll give you a recent and relevant example. A little more than 20 years ago 19 men took over four airplanes and flew them into three buildings and the ground. It was a horrible event that took the lives of many people, and of course made all of us feel fear. But our response to this event was disproportionate to the point of being unhinged. We completely rearranged our national security and military, launched 2 wars, spent trillions of dollars, embraced torture, and violated international law. We needed to respond, but we responded from a place of un-reflected-upon and unmanaged fear and the outcome hasn’t been good. Our intelligence services tell us that on 9/11/2001 there were only 100 members of the core of Al-Qaeda. Today, as a result of our completely fear-based response, the Middle East is destabilized and there are 1000’s of terrorists (www.ted.com/talks/david_rothkopf_how_fear_drives_american_politics). Our response didn’t work. I have to wonder what might have happened if we had taken a collective deep breath, calmed the more primitive parts of our brains down and spent some time allowing our higher brain, our prefrontal cortexes to work.
Another current example also comes to my mind—the rise and popularity of far-right leaders both in this country and around the world. These leaders themselves do not bother me. There will always be narcissistic people in this world who are willing to share their uninformed and unintelligent thoughts with others. What bothers me is that these leaders have such a large following, and this following seems to be all about fear. These far-right leaders have successfully tapped into the maelstrom of fear that has overtaken us in the past few years. They have tapped into the idea that we are collectively about to step on a rattlesnake right here and right now, and if we don’t act dramatically and instantly then we will all die. You can see how dangerous the human response is when we look at every challenge and possible future danger in this way. We all like to believe that we would not respond the way that the German people did pre-World War II, but that is exactly what is happening when people support leaders who use fear to motivate and gain followers.
Now I want to be very clear, fear is not a bad thing. Fear is a normal reaction to real or perceived danger. Indeed, fear in the face of immediate danger can save our lives. And fear in the face of perceived danger can give us important information that something is going on that we need to attend to. The danger is when fear in the face of a perceived danger takes over our brains and the way we live and how we respond. What distinguishes us from other animals is our prefrontal cortex, our higher brain. When we react from fear, we cease using this part of our brain and we become less than human. I often think that maybe Jesus was not just human but more fully human than the rest of us because he lived life from his higher brain and not a reactive life of fear. We are human too and we have the same brain that Jesus had. We can live more fully into our humanness too.
“Do not be afraid!” for God is with me and you and as followers of Christ we know that hope is a far more creative and powerful force than fear could ever be.