Opinion Extra

The day God moved into the neighborhood


Lots of us are worried. Afraid, even.

It’s been a year of turmoil on the national political scene, leaving some of us feeling off-kilter. To say nothing about jitters over global tensions.

And violence strikes close — too close — to home. It was just a little more than two years ago that we heard horrific news about an attack on a South Carolina congregation meeting for Bible study. Just a year ago when we finally heard news of the conviction of the killer of the Emanuel Nine.

While I counsel living by trust and faith, the fact is that those of us who lead houses of worship, including at my own downtown Episcopal parish, find beefing up security more often a topic of planning meetings.

And there are fears about daily needs. Whatever gains we see in the economy, household budgets create their own stresses. Some worry about keeping up on rent and utilities, as low wages and high rents fuel what some call an eviction epidemic.

The Very Rev Timothy Jones


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Our young people seem especially prone to fear. Rates of depression and anxiety among adolescents have pretty steadily trended higher and higher over the past eight decades.

Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Marilynne Robinson noted recently that “Fear has, in this moment, a respectability I’ve never seen in my life.”

And that troubled her, as it troubles me, because fear can not only make us feel discomfort, it can shrink our souls. Our reflexive habit of worrying keeps us from living out of our best selves for the challenges of such moments. We may not turn toward our challenges with creativity or toward others with expansive generosity.

So if we want to stop being so wearied — and cautiously wary — where do we start? Can we live above our fears? Or at least quiet their powerfully limiting voices?

We need a courage not rooted in circumstances or headlines or too-easy optimism, but in a joy that has the promise of something lasting and durable.

This season can help. By this season I don’t just mean the generalized anticipation in the air and evergreen centerpieces and colored lights and sentimental, so-bad-they’re-good Christmas movies. I mean how Christmas can point to deeper sources of hopefulness and resiliency — something more dependable than the latest self-help scheme or mind-dulling entertainment or online distraction. For we need a courage not rooted in circumstances or headlines or too-easy optimism, but in a joy that has the potential — the promise — of something lasting and durable.

Those of us in the Christian tradition believe that our ancient forebears can help us. That hearing an old story again might change the whole picture.

While the story of Jesus’ birth has perhaps been romanticized from sanitized re-tellings, it is a gritty story that forms the real centerpiece of this time.

I’m struck by the homelessness of Jesus’ parents, in the account from Luke’s Gospel (which word means, surprisingly and simply, “good news”). On that night when he was born, when they were far from their home in Nazareth, they had reason to be afraid.

God says in effect, I’m moving into the neighborhood.

No wonder the angels announce to the main players in the drama, “Do not be afraid.” Mary hears it. Joseph hears it. The shepherds, scared witless by all the radiance in Luke’s account, hear it from a chorus of angels. No wonder the Bible says, in all its ins and outs and the people’s ups and downs, “Don’t be afraid” more than 100 times.

For there are complications. There was no actual room at the inn. The drama includes the smells of farm animals, likely the lowing of cattle. Shepherds, who had little status and performed menial, low-paying day labor, are among the first witnesses.

But there’s something extraordinary, too. One can imagine a light suffusing the scene. And I can imagine the dawning sense that ordinary people were being invited to make room for an extraordinary thing.

By coming into Mary and Joseph’s soon-to-be-set-up household, God says in effect, I’m moving into the neighborhood. Emmanuel, one of Christ’s revered and venerable names, means “God with us” — a name that announces that God is not distant and distracted, but that he willingly comes close, even to become one of us. Pope Francis was asked the meaning of this season a couple of years ago, and he said it with admirable simplicity: “Christmas is God’s meeting with his people.”

A God of downward mobility cares enough to show up, even in those situations that make us quake or ask hard questions.

I take that to mean that God can come into the scenes of human life itself, for all its grubby spectacular splendor, into all its gritty particulars. A God of downward mobility cares enough to show up, even in those situations that make us quake or ask hard questions.

Sometimes, when I teach about prayer, people admit to great hesitancy about praying for the situations that make them afraid. My response is that if a situation is important enough to worry about, then it’s probably important enough to pray about.

That’s true because God showed himself eager to descend into our world, and dive personally into our glorious and too-often messy lives. Such a conviction might help us in our habitual fearfulness. It might even make this Christmas more than a holiday, but a day made holy by a larger Presence.

May today remind us of One who makes it possible to trust, or trust again. One whose Voice gives that never-out-of-date and that never-too-often-heard invitation: Do not be afraid.

The Very Rev. Jones is dean of Trinity Cathedral in Columbia; contact him at jones@trinitysc.org.