Advent teaches us that the Lord is close at hand — and calms our fears
I'm embarrassed to say that I used to be afraid of Mr. Bingle. Each Christmas shopping season back in the '50s, Lowenstein's department store featured the diminutive snowman puppet with a high-pitched voice who encouraged boys' and girls' excitement about the latest toys. For some reason he frightened me.
Perhaps it was the movie about the Abominable Snowman I heard the older kids talking about. I didn't know what "abominable" meant, but it sounded ominous enough to keep me at a safe distance.
On Thanksgiving Day a few years ago, the Memphis newspaper featured a story about Mr. Bingle, and one of my sisters reminded me how I used to hide when he appeared on TV — as if I needed the reminder.
When I was a child, I also was afraid of going to sleep alone in my room. The solution was to keep the door open so the hall light could shine near my bed and I could hear the television and the voices of family members. Not feeling alone any longer, I went fast asleep. It made me feel secure that someone was within earshot, even if no one was actually in the room with me. The family was near.
Someone is near
Most of us overcame unfounded childhood fears by learning that someone was close enough to make sure no harm would come to us. That someone was real, but the things we feared were not.
As we age, irrational fear can still have a way of unsettling us — the feeling of being utterly alone, wondering if anyone notices our plight; idle speculation run amok, worrying that the unthinkable but unlikely could actually happen; memories of past mistakes replayed in our heads, painful "what ifs" gnawing at our consciences.
Not all anxieties are irrational, of course. We know from experience that life has its dangers and disappointments, its traps and tragedies. These are not phantoms of our imagination, and they can threaten our peace of mind.
Whatever the source of our apprehension — real or imagined — it somehow helps to know that someone is near. Having friends and family within earshot, experiencing their encouragement and support, our loads are lightened and we find strength to forge ahead.
In much the same way, but at a much more profound level, Advent teaches that Someone is indeed near.
"The Reign of God is at hand!" John the Baptist announces. (Matthew 3)
"Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication … sorrow and mourning will flee." (Isaiah 35)
"Make your hearts firm, for the coming of the Lord is at hand," writes James. (James 5)
"Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife," the angel tells the confused and anxious Joseph in a dream. "It is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her." (Matthew 1)
"Go and tell John what you hear and see," Jesus says to the followers of John the Baptist. "The blind regain their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them." (Matthew 11)
See, hear and welcome him
What does the nearness of God mean for us?
It means that we are not now, and never will be, alone. It means that everything that causes us to fear — rational or irrational, fact or fiction — is under God's vigilant watch. It means that his plan is taking its course, even if we are not able to see it. It means there is no difficulty, no danger, no sin that Jesus has not overcome for us in his death and resurrection. It means that in him we conquer everything. It means there is no reason to be afraid.
But it also means that we must pay attention to his nearness. If our God comes with vindication, if the coming of the Lord is at hand, if the evidence of God's presence is everywhere, then we should take notice — and our lives should be different than they would be if God were nowhere to be found.
It is not a matter that our behavior should be different out of fear, as kids in a classroom hush and quit their foolishness because the teacher is just outside the door. Far to the contrary, our changed behavior helps us see God, hear him, recognize him and welcome him.
It was their attentiveness to the nearness of God that kept Mary and Joseph from hiding in fear and confusion when confronted with surprising (one might say irrational) circumstances, and enabled them instead to place their lives trustingly in God's hands, saying, "Let all things come about according to your will."
Listen to an interview with Archbishop Sartain where he talks more about Mr. Bingle, as well as, what Christmas was like for him as a child and why you should keep your Christmas tree up well past Dec. 25.
Send your prayer intentions to Archbishop Sartain's Prayer List, Archdiocese of Seattle, 710 Ninth Ave., Seattle, WA 98104.
Northwest Catholic - December 2013