I downloaded some new Christmas music this year because my old CDs are who knows where in our house. Even if I found them, it's time to update my collection a little and find some new favorites. I discovered a new carol from one of the albums that I bought, but I didn't know much about it. Jody helped me do a little research about this song, "The Cherry Tree Carol."
It's a folk carol really. It's history is a little murky. Some date it back to the 15th century, but others claim its from the 18th. I learned that the roots of the story in the carol are actually more ancient than either of those dates, though, coming from the first few centuries of the church's existence, from a gospel account that is not contained in our Scriptures. In the carol Mary and Joseph are traveling to Bethlehem where she will eventually deliver her child. Along the way the expectant mother Mary is hungry and asks Joseph to stop and get her a cherry from an orchard they are passing, for the baby. Joseph snaps back bitterly, telling her to let the child's father get him a cherry to eat.
It's a sweet sounding carol when you hear it, but when you listen to the words.... Well, there's a lot of anger and bitterness in them really. And I don't know about you, but I get that. I get a depiction of Joseph as angry about the situation in which he found himself. He was a righteous man. He hadn't done anything wrong. He was respecting the betrothal period, waiting for Mary to become his wife. He was doing everything exactly right when suddenly, out of the blue, he is told his fiancé, the woman he was SUPPOSED to be marrying, is pregnant, and he knows it's not his child. Anger like that in "The Cherry Tree Carol" sounds about right.
Anger and fear. Who would believe him? Would the men at the synagogue still trust him? Would those who counted him among the righteous now look down their noses at him, dismiss him, disrespect him? Would they even do business with him?
And what were his choices? The law said he could be rid of her, divorce her if he's nice, even have her stoned if he so desired. So even if he was rid of Mary, would they let him back in their circles? Was he already marked as a weak man? And if he stayed with her would they look at him as stupid, taken advantage of by his wandering wife? Would he ever have a place in the community again?
Do not be afraid. "Right," Joseph must have thought when he awoke from his CRAZY dream. Do not be afraid. Don't be afraid! It's just your fiancé who is pregnant. Don't be afraid! I know it's not yours. Don't be afraid! It's just a baby made by God. Don't be afraid! Keep your wife; keep your baby. It'll all work, and he'll even save the people. Don't worry. Don't be afraid. Right. Sure, he must have been thinking.
Well, of course, he was afraid. He was scared out of his mind. Who wouldn't be? His life was a mess. Nothing was the way he imagined it would be. Nothing was going according to his well thought out, his well deserved plans. His relationships were a mess. His place in the community with his friends was uncertain. His ability to work, to provide for himself and this family, if he were to choose to accept it, was in complete jeopardy. His life was in utter turmoil; he was being consumed by the suffocating darkness of fear.
When I am at a beach, I like to go out in the ocean past the place where the waves break. Some people like to wait for waves and ride them in on boards or their bodies, but I like to swim past them and just ride the big swells while they are gaining energy, before they spill over into the crashing white froth. But to get out to those rolling waves, you have to go past the crashing ones, and that isn't always easy.
At least once every visit to the beach a wave will get the best of me. Either I don't jump early enough or I don't duck under it all the way, and the wave will catch me and toss me violently under the water. When that happens you lose all sense of direction. Salt water seeps into your eyes that are squeezed tightly shut. It drips into your mouth and rolls around on your tongue. It burns as it sneaks up your nose and down the back of your throat. The rush of water tossing you around fills your ears, and worst of all, there is total darkness, total disorientation, and no matter how many times it has happened to you, no matter how many times you have survived this momentary nightmare, there is this gut-grabbing fear.
This Advent world we live in is like this, too. It's like Joseph's world. It's an uncertain place. It's a world where relationships are messy, even painful. It's a world where our jobs are insecure. It's a world where betrayal breeds mistrust, where the ones we hope are righteous seem careless, where people make decisions out of anger and fear. People are going hungry. People are tossed around systems and cities, cold, disoriented, and lonely. People are at war with one another. It's a world, where like winter, the days only seem darker and darker as they pass, suffocating us with worry and anxiety.
It is a panicky situation. Disoriented, its hard to figure out which way is up, which way will take us back to the surface. Thrown about by powerful tides it's difficult to know which way to turn to put the sandy ocean floor below our feet again. It's terrifying, facing these violent days that threaten our comfort, our security, our faith.
Yet, like Joseph, we are challenged to hear the angel's words, "Do not be afraid." While he tossed and turned in his restless sleep, he was reassured by a divine vision, "Do not be afraid." Like a child stumbling around in the dark, trying to find his way to his mother's calming arms. Like a swimmer opening her eyes, even just a crack, letting the salt water sting for just a little while she peeks looking, hoping for a glimmer of light - - "Do not be afraid." The light tells you which way is up. The light reorients you, gives you the direction to go. The light carries you to surface where there is air and freedom and life.
Joseph was a righteous man. He was a human man. He wasn't above anger. He wasn't above fear. He was a human being facing his worst nightmare, and his first response was completely understandable - - get out of here. But then he saw the glimmer. In his darkest night he saw the light of God's love shimmering even in the middle of his pain. Even in the middle of his deepest fears, he opened his eyes, opened his life to the light that would bring him up to the surface, the light that would save him carry him from despair.
Do not be afraid for the child is Emmanuel, God with us. Do not be afraid because he is God's presence, God's life. Do not be afraid because every pain you feel, every loss you mourn, even anxiety you experience, you will experience with him at your side. Do not be afraid. You are not alone. We are not alone. The world has not been abandoned, left to suffer in darkness. Do not be afraid because God sends a savior to accompany us, to heal us, to carry us into God's marvelous light. Do not be afraid. God is with us.