And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way
with painful steps and slow,
look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
and hear the angels sing! – It Came Upon A Midnight Clear, vs 3
The feeling of despair found in this carol’s verse can be found almost everywhere in this world. Turn on the news and you’ll see the world coming apart at the seams. Terror, hunger, political scandal, income inequality, racial tension…the list goes on. On a personal level, the fear over where the next meal will come, or if there will be enough money to keep the heat on during the cold winter is more than some people are able to bear.
This carol invites the singer (and hearer) to “rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing!” But what song are the angels singing? This carol points to the ever popular phrase the angels spoke to the shepherds: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors” (Lk 2:14). Yet, in the birth narratives in the Bible there is a more common refrain that the angels share the three times they appear: Do not be afraid!
The angel first appears to Mary to tell her that she is highly favored of God (Lk 1:28). Mary, unsure of what this means, does not respond, then the angel says to Mary “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (Lk 1:30). He then tells Mary that she would conceive a child outside of marriage. The shame of such a scandal could ruin her and her family. Mary could have been stoned as punishment for being pregnant, even though this was uncommon in this time period. In spite of all this, Mary hears the message of the angel to not be afraid and accepts the burden placed upon her.
The angel appears to Mary’s fiancée, Joseph, as well. After he learns of Mary’s pregnancy he has every legal right (and social expectation) to publicly divorce and shame her, to ruin her whole life, since the shame of such an act would make it almost impossible for her to find another husband, leaving her without any form of economic survival once her parents had died. Yet, when Joseph finally decides to quietly divorce her, sparing her some shame, the angel appears to him with the same message given to Mary, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife” (Matt 1:20). After hearing the message of the angel, Joseph takes Mary as his wife, accepting Jesus as his own and sparing her the shame and ridicule that would come as an unwed mother.
Finally, the angel appears to the shepherds at Jesus’ birth, appearing in the night sky and causing such a commotion that one can only imagine what the shepherds must have thought. Fears of their death probably were at the forefront of their minds, yet the angel once again shares the same message given to Mary and Joseph, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy” (Lk 2:10). The angel proclaimed to the shepherds the good news of the birth of Jesus, to which the shepherds responded with joy, leaving their flocks to go see the miraculous thing God had done (Lk 2:15-20).
For those of us living in the world today, the message of the angels still needs to be heard: Do not be afraid! Despite the despair on the nightly news, despite the fear of going hungry, despite the tensions brought about by political division, the baby born in Bethlehem so many years ago is still the king of heaven and earth. Though we have much to fear in this world the message of Christmas is that we really have nothing to fear, since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth and one day will return to usher in His kingdom where “everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away: (Isa 51:11). This message does not deny the reality of the burdens brought about by this life, but rather, proclaims that these burdens are temporary and will not afflict God’s children forever.
Another Christmas carol proclaims this promise to all who sing and hear it:
And our eyes at last shall see him,
through his own redeeming love,
for that child, so dear and gentle,
is our Lord in heaven above:
and he leads his children on
to the place where he has gone. – Once in Royal David’s City, vs 4