1968 WAS a hard year for my family. My father had been suffering from Parkinson’s for some time, and he had to retire from the firm where he was working because of the debilitating effects of the disease. He was not very steady when he walked, his right hand was shaking even when resting on his lap, and he had frequent memory lapses.

Fortunately, the pension check started arriving after a few months, but it was not enough to maintain a family of five. My younger brother Roberto and I were still in high school, my older brother Giulio was doing his obligatory military service away from home, and my mother was a housewife. Of course mum and dad had put some money away, but we had spent most of it to pay off our mortgage. The rest was being spent on dad’s expensive medicines and therapies, with the result that our family, which hereto had been well-off, suddenly found itself in dire straits.

I can still remember quite distinctly that Christmas Day lunch in 1968 when, in a dreary mood of sadness and anxiety, my dad burst out in tears quite unexpectedly and without any apparent reason. My mother hugged him and, seeing us, her three sons, filled with dismay and apprehension, said to us, “Do not be afraid, everything will sort itself out with God’s help.”

And she was right! A few months later, having obtained my high school diploma, I was able to find work while Giulio was hired by the same firm where my dad had worked for so many years. New medicines were also discovered which, though they could not cure the disease, were able to delay the inexorable course of the disease. My father was able to live for many more years and experience the joy of witnessing my ordination to the priesthood. Mum had been right, if you trust in the Lord you need not fear!

God sounds like a broken record when it comes to the exhortation: Do not be afraid. This phrase is repeated so many times that it has been called a distillation of the whole Bible. The Lord said it to Abraham before cutting a covenant with him; Gabriel said it to Daniel when he was frightened by a terrifying vision; an angel said it to Zechariah, the future father of John the Baptist… Jesus himself repeatedly said it to his disciples, culminating in his resurrection appearance when he came to his grieving, fearful friends and spoke the words, “Don’t be afraid.” Mary Magdalene heard this same exhortation when she was in the Garden searching for Jesus.

According to some scholars, Don’t be afraid is the most common expression in the whole Bible, appearing 365 times (a daily reminder, perhaps?). Naturally the encouragement was also given to Mary and Joseph, Jesus’ parents. In the Gospel of Luke we read that Mary was perplexed when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to her with the words, “Don’t be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (Lk. 1:20). And in the Gospel of Matthew we read that, when Joseph had decided to dismiss Mary quietly, an angel appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:20).

The first thing that was asked of Mary and Joseph was that they should not be frightened. Mary was not commanded to accept the baby, and Joseph was not commanded to take her as a wife. They were simply challenged not to be afraid. If they could manage that, then the rest would fall into place.

Feeling fear is commonplace in our lives. God knows that; he pre-empted it with the Holy Family, and he pre-empts it with us. Of course legitimate fears can be a good thing when they alert us to some danger, but we must be careful about those fears that can block us from the life God wants us to live; those fears that keep us from loving God with all our mind, heart and strength, and from loving our neighbors.

It might seem odd to be speaking of fear as we approach this season of joy, but Christmas time often brings out strong emotions in us, especially when our lives are not measuring up to what we would have hoped them to be. The Holy Family had to be told not to be afraid at the first Christmas, my own family was told that by our mum, and each of us needs to hear it when we are in danger of letting fear take over our lives.

Dear readers, be strong: don’t be afraid, because, “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord” (Lk. 2:11). Merry Christmas!

Updated on October 06 2016