A few years ago when I was updating my Advent and Christmas music collection I discovered a carol I had never heard before. It struck me from the first hearing because it features Joseph prominently, and Joseph doesn’t get a lot of play time in Christmas carols.
“The Cherry Tree Carol” is a folk carol with a murky history, as it goes with folk carols. Some date it back to the 15th century, but others claim it’s from the 18th. The roots of the story in the carol are actually more ancient than any of this, 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 can understand a depiction of Joseph as angry about the situation in which he found himself. He was a righteous man. He was doing everything exactly right when suddenly, out of the blue, he is told his fiancé is pregnant, and he knows it’s not his child. Anger sounds about right.
Anger and fear. He may have had the word of the angel, but 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?
Do not be afraid. “Right,” Joseph must have thought when he awoke from his CRAZY dream. Do not be afraid. I can only imagine how that sounded to him. “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 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.
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. And what were his choices – divorce her quietly? Have her stoned?? Marry her anyway??? 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 I lose all sense of direction. Salt water seeps into my eyes that are squeezed tightly shut. It drips into my mouth and rolls around on my tongue. It burns as it sneaks up my nose and down the back of my throat. The rush of water tossing me around fills my ears, and worst of all, there is total darkness, total disorientation, and no matter how many times it has happened, no matter how many times I 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 some of our jobs and especially the jobs of vulnerable people 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, it’s 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.
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 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.