One summer my cousin Betty and I sneaked through the barbed-wire fence of a neighbor’s orchard and ate so many wild plums right off the tree that we almost made ourselves sick. Betty was 13 and I was 9, and I adored her. I still do.
Betty is dying right now. She might not make it till Christmas, which is really bad timing in my opinion. Yes, I talk with God about this. It’s one thing for me to lose a beloved cousin: I’m old enough to know from experience that, while the pain can feel like a raw wound that might never heal, losing those we love is a normal part of life. But I keep wondering, What kind of message is God sending to Betty’s family by jerking her away from them during this holy season of Advent? Doesn’t God care that they are already plunged into grief in anticipation of losing someone they love so much?
Death at any time, and especially at Christmas, doesn’t make sense to me. And yet neither do the frequent killings of unarmed black teenagers by law enforcement, the atrocities committed by ISIS, the horrors of war and poverty and hunger, the corruption in our own government, a faster-than-expected melting ice cap, and the latest actual or threatened school shootings. The year doesn’t seem to be ending on a hopeful note, and sometimes I become deeply afraid, especially about the future. And I lose hope for myself, for those I love, and for the world.
Yes, I talk with God about my fears, too, mostly in the form of questions from the little five-year-old kid inside me. What’s going to happen? Where are we going? What will it be like? Will it hurt? Do I have to? And, Why?
God, so far, has responded to these questions only by silence. Or it seems that way. But there is one kind of answer that God sometimes seems to whisper to me in the midst of the silence. It’s the same answer that God gave to the Virgin Mary through the angel Gabriel: “Do not be afraid.”
On the surface, Gabriel’s words can sound like a criticism: “You’re afraid, and that’s a bad thing. You need to change.” Those of us who grew up in families that practiced shaming tend to bristle at words like these. They can also sound like words of instruction for denial and pretense: “Just buck up. Tell yourself there’s nothing to be afraid of, and the fear will go away.” Both of these messages tend to come from people who don’t understand our fear, are uncomfortable with it, and want us to act differently so that they feel better.
But I don’t believe Gabriel, or God, intended to convey either of those messages to Mary. When I was little and had frequent nightmares, my mother would come into my room and sit with me for a few minutes. Sometimes she would have me get down on the floor with her and look under the bed, and she’d say, “See? There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
That helped. What helped me even more was that she sat there with me. Her presence with me in my fear helped me become less afraid.
God seemed to be doing something similar for Mary through Gabriel. The context was, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” Gabriel reassured Mary, through both his words and his presence, that God was not criticizing her. Instead, God liked her a lot and was fully present with her to give her some news — some good news of hope.
“Do not be afraid.” Is my scared inner five-year-old satisfied with that answer?
No, not at first. But when I remember that God is the loving parent who, as Jesus said, does not give us a snake when we ask for a fish, I am reassured that the words are not a criticism, but an invitation to hope.
This hope that replaces fear comes alive in me as I think of my cousin Betty and her grieving family. I can’t take away their grief and sadness any more than I can take away my own. But I can have hope for the future, including their future, because I know who it is that offers that hope.
Gabriel’s words to Mary are an invitation from God to all of us. An invitation to hope and not be afraid.
Barbara Milligan is a spiritual director and the author of Desperate Hope: Experiencing God in the Midst of Breast Cancer. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.