I recently happened across a comforting verse from The First Letter of Peter that seems fitting for a time like this. “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you. Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you. Be sober, be watchful” (1 Pe 5:6-8).
There is a lot going on in our nation and world right now. Yet we will soon be in a liturgical season that calls us to rejoice with the angels who proclaimed to the shepherds, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people, for to you is born this day in the City of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Lk 2:10-11).
I am always grateful for the iconic recitation of this passage in A Charlie Brown Christmas. It reminds us to join the chorus of praise that those shepherds of old heard, “Glory to God in the Highest and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased.” (Lk 2:14). That the essential Christmas message is given from the most unlikely, and yet wisest, character of the show should not be lost on us. In his humility, clutching at his blue security blanket, Linus sees what no one else could and tells us what Christmas is all about.
As I write this, I anticipate that peace and joy is not the feeling our nation or world will be feeling this Advent. We will undoubtedly still be roiling from this long and arduous year, which has drawn us down into an abyss. Even if we know who won our election, the “results” are bound to divide further our nation, families, communities and parishes. The plague of COVID-19 and all the restrictions this pandemonium of fear has imposed is crushing to the spirit, to put it mildly.
But the Christmas event is the challenge Jesus calls his disciples to embrace at this moment, especially in 2020. We are called to reject fear and to rejoice because the Prince of Peace is born again. Out of unseen places he appears. Christ has come and He remains with us through it all. The beauty of our faith is that we do not need to succumb to the anxiety our world generates.
Rather, we can remain fixed upon that great luminary of the night sky that portends God’s victory over every evil that afflicts us. This star will reappear for us on December 21 when Jupiter and Saturn nearly touch and the Liturgy declares in the ‘O antiphon’ for the day: “O radiant dawn, sun of justice: come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death.”
This antiphon reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from the Lord of the Rings. As Samwise Gamgee and Frodo Baggins are making their way to Mount Doom, across the sickened and dark plains of Mordor, Sam sees a “white star twinkle for a while” in the dim and pale night sky. “The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.”
Advent reminds us that we are born up by a star in the night sky. Hope is the virtue God gives to endure the trials of this life here, below the heavens, with certainty that the Prince of Peace will prevail as His light pierces the darkness. Christmas reminds us that our hope is not in vain. Christ did come, and he will come again when the time is right. In fact, the Lord is never late; he shows up precisely when he means to. This Christmas will be no different.
The key to our hope, however, is to follow St. Peter’s advice. We must cast all our anxieties on Jesus and believe from our hearts that He cares about us. I have always found it curious that the Sermon on the Mount dedicates 10 verses to the human struggle of anxiety. No other topic receives as much attention. Prayer gets nine verses. Apparently, anxiety is the greatest challenge to faith when we face uncertain and dark times. And as we ought to expect, prayer is anxiety’s only antidote.
As Americans, we are an anxious people — riddled with stress — much of which is self-induced. The root of our stress is the disproportionate effort we expend on being self-reliant and busy. We rarely cast our anxieties on the Lord because we have what we believe are better solutions to our problems — government policy, a robust economy, a strong military, technology, entertainment and endless shopping outlets. The events of 2020 force us, unfortunately, to see how delusional our control over things really is and how tenuous our over-reliance on ourselves.
Peter thus reminds us to “be sober and watchful.” That is the posture of a humble and praying soul. He goes on to state that the devil is prowling about looking to devour us (1 Pe 5:9). Peter’s urging suggests that a tremendous source of anxiety is the veil of deception placed over us by Satan. The devil is crafty and manipulative and so we must always assume that things from God’s point of view are not what they appear to be.
Often, God is at work in ways missed by the mainstream. And the things we think we grasp clearly only entrap us further into the devil’s snare. The only way to avoid being fooled is to be humble, sober and alert in prayer, which is why the Church gives us this season of Advent to prepare for the coming of Christ, lest we be caught off guard and unaware when God’s victory over evil is announced.
The events of the first Christmas make this all too evident. As the ancient world reeled from political machinations, economic exploits, and seemingly untouchable princely powers, the Prince of Peace is born unnoticed in a stable in Bethlehem. The true King is announced without a headline or a propaganda war. Meanwhile, the prince of darkness didn’t even notice.
What at first seemed a setback to God’s plan — finding no room at the inn and an exile to Egypt — becomes God’s humble and thus hidden counter offensive to the darkness that lay upon the earth at that time. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined” (Is 9:2). So, be at peace, for Christ has conquered the world.