Twelve Days: The Fear of the Lord

Coming out of a year as scary as 2020, fear doesn’t sound all that Christmasy. After all, one of the great canticles of Advent celebrates that Christ’s coming fulfills God’s promise that “we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (Luke 1:74-75). Yet I’m struck how often fear attends the advent and birth of Christ, starting with the singer of that song:

Then there appeared to [Zechariah] an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.”

Luke 1:11-13

When this child was born to Elizabeth and Zechariah and given the name of John, “fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea” (1:65).

Domenico Ghirlandaio, “The Annunciation of the Angel to Zechariah” (1490) – Wikimedia

Then we come to the birth of Jesus himself…

The angel said to her, “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. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Luke 1:30-33

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “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. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

Luke 2:8-12

I’m sure I’d find each situation terrifying as well. But after any initial fright faded, the fear of Zechariah, Mary, and the shepherds turned to awe or reverence, as they saw God’s glory with a clarity given to few mortals. That kind of fear led naturally to the “joy and gladness” the angel promised Zechariah (1:14), inspiring Mary to sing her great song and the shepherds to glorify and praise God “for all they had heard and seen…” (2:20).

But according to our Old Testament reading for today, fear can also produce something even deeper and more enduring than awe and joy:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
    fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Prov 1:7

I don’t know that I ever seek to inspire fear in my students. (Sometimes it happens anyway.) But Zechariah, Mary, and the shepherds certainly went through a kind of education. First, they experienced the humility that comes with a keen understanding of realizing how far our ways are from those of God. Then dawned understanding, as light started to reveal the unfathomable depths of God’s love for us. “His mercy is for those who fear him,” realized Mary, “from generation to generation” (Luke 1:50).

Fra Angelico, “Madonna of Humility” (ca. 1430) – Wikimedia

For all I celebrated Solomon earlier in this series, I suspect that it’s Mary who best exemplifies wisdom, at least as it’s described in today’s epistle text, from the New Testament’s version of Proverbs:

Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.

James 3:13-17

The knowledge that begins in fear has little to do with the cleverness of the powerful or even the intelligence of the brilliant, each of which can be so easily distorted by ambition, jealousy, pride, and selfishness, producing “fools” who “despise wisdom and instruction.” Instead, Mary models a wisdom born of humility, as human certainty yields to divine truth, and lived out in peace, gentleness, and works of mercy, as the hungry are filled and the lowly are lifted.

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