THIRD THURSDAY OF ADVENT
SCRIPTURE: LUKE 1:26-38
In the sixth month,
the angel Gabriel was sent from God
to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,
of the house of David,
and the virgin's name was Mary.
And coming to her, he said,
"Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you."
But she was greatly troubled at what was said
and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Then the angel said to her,
"Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.
Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his Kingdom there will be no end."
But Mary said to the angel,
"How can this be,
since I have no relations with a man?"
And the angel said to her in reply,
"The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.
Therefore the child to be born
will be called holy, the Son of God.
And behold, Elizabeth, your relative,
has also conceived a son in her old age,
and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;
for nothing will be impossible for God."
Mary said, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word."
Then the angel departed from her.
Anxiety is a universal human experience—hardwired into our brains to keep us alert to danger. Threats to our physical or emotional well-being result in feelings of anxiety and fear that trigger a fight or flight response. Our bodies are designed to go into overdrive—in order to react to the threat and keep ourselves and those we love safe. So, for instance, we slam on the brakes when a car suddenly veers into our lane. Our bodies are also designed to go into a recovery period after a stressful event, as things return to “normal.”
To this day, my 24-year-old son sighs loudly if he is with me in the car when I have to brake suddenly—as my right arm automatically stretches out in front of his body. This behavior disappears when I am driving alone, but when my son is the car, that protective instinct takes over. It’s as if a switch has been turned on inside my body—one that I can’t control.
For people who deal with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), that switch stays on most, if not all, of the time. They seldom, if ever, go into a state of relaxation that allows their bodies and minds to recover. GAD applies to overwhelming feelings of anxiety that are unreasonable and not connected with an actual threat to one’s safety or well-being. According to a large study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry in 2017, the incidence of GAD is growing and is more prevalent in high-income countries—though within those countries, it is more likely to affect people of lower socioeconomic status. The reasons are widely debated and open to speculation, but we do know that Millennials are the most anxious generation.
So, what does this have to do with Mary and the passage we read today?
Mary, after all, had reasons to be anxious. First, she was visited by an angel, hardly an everyday occurrence, even in Biblical times. Second, she was told that she was going to have a baby. As an unmarried woman in first century Palestine, the shame of such an event was frightening and life altering. It’s no wonder that Mary was “greatly troubled” by this anxiety-producing news; it was certainly NOT what she had imagined for her life.
But the angel’s response is one that we hear over and over in the Bible, including several times in Luke’s account of the Christmas story. Do not be afraid. Fear not. We also hear it when the angel appears to Joseph and again when an angel appears to the shepherds in the fields on the night Jesus is born. Fear not. Do not be afraid.
I know that simply hearing these words does not take away anxiety—whether it’s cause is rational or not. But they are a reminder to me that there is a divine presence active in the world that is bigger and more powerful than I am. That God’s imagination is greater than anything I can imagine. That ultimately all things will be made right. That I can simply breathe and relax into God’s presence. That I can trust God, as Mary did, and say, “May it be done to me according to your word.”
Who do I know that suffers from anxiety? How do I process my own anxiety?
Am I supportive, empathetic, encouraging and available to people who are anxious?
Have I encouraged the anxious people I know to seek professional help?
Have I helped anxious people in my life to imagine a better future?
Sandra Christensen is a child of the Divine who is beginning to understand that the rest of it doesn’t really matter.