Three angelic visits occasion the birth of Christ. Three times, heaven touches down upon the earth. Three times, the earth tilts awkwardly under the weight of glory. Three times, the witnesses are thrown off-balance. And that is how you prepare for Christmas. You begin the journey to Christmas – not by getting your bearings – but by losing them. The three visits are as dreadful as they are fascinating.
First, Gabriel appeared to Zechariah while he was burning incense in the temple to tell him of the coming birth of John the Baptist. Six months later, Gabriel was sent to Mary at Nazareth, telling her that she would be the mother of Christ. And then, a few months later, an unnamed host of angels (presumably Gabriel among them) announced the birth of Christ to the shepherds in the fields. Three visits, three different recipients, but there is one striking similarity among them. This similarity reveals the mystery of the incarnation.
On each visit, the angel uttered the same odd sentence, “Do not be afraid.”
Now on the face of it, you might say, “Well, what is odd about that? Angels are awesome and terrifying creatures, mighty and full of light. They are pure spirit from beyond and above our world. Of course the shepherds, Zechariah and Mary would be afraid? It wouldn’t be natural if they weren’t.” But that is my question, you see. If God didn’t want them to be afraid, then why send a messenger that would scare them half to death? Why frighten someone just so you can tell them not to fear?
God could have delivered His message differently. He could have embedded it into a dream (He did this for Joseph). He could have coded it into a mathematical but discernible sign (He did this for the Magi). He could have used that “still small voice” perhaps? That would have been less alarming. Even handwriting on the wall would have given them a chance to catch their breath. But why send an angel – and an Archangel at that? It is almost as if God intended to scare them.
God prepares us for the Incarnation by knocking us off-balance.
Roger Edwards joined The Barnabas Center in 1991. In addition to counseling individuals and couples, Roger teaches and leads discussion groups about applying the Bible to everyday life. He is a licensed professional counselor, holds a master’s degree in biblical counseling from Grace Theological Seminary in Indiana and earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is married to Jean, and they have seven children.