Wednesday, December 8, 2021
Katie Snipes Lancaster
Matthew 1:20–1 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
Reflection on the Nativity
This morning, a friend of mine sent me this passage from Rainer Maria Rilke’s book Letters to a Young Poet:
Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart
and try to love the questions themselves,
like locked rooms and like books
that are now written in a very foreign tongue.
Do not now seek the answers,
which cannot be given you
because you would not be able to live them.
And the point is, to live everything.
Live the questions now.
Perhaps you will then gradually,
without noticing it,
live along some distant day
into the answer.
Matthew’s nativity draws me to “live the questions now.” We are all like Joseph, asking ourselves if we should quietly do what the world has declared to be “the right thing,” when our dreams are telling us instead to “live everything.” Or rather, should we listen to the angels among us who offer us the wisest words, “do not be afraid.”
Maybe we hate this divine message. Fear can drive us. Fear of loss, fear of change, fear of death, fear of our hearts breaking into a thousand pieces. We live in a culture that uses fear to get you to buy one more thing, to click on one more ad-laden article, to relinquish the freedom that is just within reach. Fear holds us in bondage. Fear manufactures injustice. Fear keeps us captive to “the way things were” and closes us off to the possibility that God is birthing in our midst. We have a complicated relationship to fear. Maybe the angel of the Lord knows that. Maybe that is why the angel of the Lord comes in the middle of the night, in a dream. We can more easily ignore these divine nudges in the mid-day when some semblance of order can push fear aside.
Of course you’ll notice that Joseph has much to fear. Will he be disgraced if he marries the one to whom he is engaged? Will he be able to earn a living, or will he be permanently shunned? Would he be able to support himself, Mary and the child if he did marry her? Will his family reject him? What will the uncertain future bring? These are not ancient questions: there is someone asking this question right now, today.
“Do not be afraid,” is the angel’s response. It implies trust. Safe keeping. A future with hope. It implies a deep, deep breath: the one we’ve all been holding inside us. It implies a divine understanding that there is much at stake and even more to fear. “Do not seek the answers which cannot be given,” says Rilke. We will not know. We will risk much. Our hearts will break. There will be conflict, division, an outburst of anger, maybe even violence (as Jesus will discover, and Joseph soon, too). And, there will yet be a glimmer of that night-sky divine light in which we remember: God is with us. Something God-shaped is on the horizon. Something sacred is shifting. “Do not be afraid.”
I think these short verses say a thousand things about how to pray. I find my own deep breath rising and falling as I wonder about what it might have been like to be Joseph, angel of the Lord standing before him in that long ago dream, with those simple impossible words echoing in his ear, “Do not be afraid.” Can we pray toward those words? Can we hold as sacred those words? We may, at times, do so imperfectly. We may do so with fits and starts. Fear may sneak in again late at night when the rest of the world is not paying attention. But “Do not be afraid,” is the kind of prayer we need on a post-it note by our bedside, on our bathroom mirror, on the dashboard of our car, just so we can practice it (hesitantly, haltingly) day after day.
Praying the Nativity
Come to us in our dreams,
deep into the night
and now in the clear of day.
Come to us, so that we might hear
your prayer for us:
“Do not be afraid.”