Anticipation—Advent is filled with it! We anticipate the Lord’s coming at Christmas as we light each candle on our Advent wreath. We look forward to family gatherings, beautiful celebrations at church, and all the blessings that come during this season. As we wait, our hope in the Lord can increase and our faith can grow stronger.
But sometimes the holiday season can be difficult. Instead of anticipating the good things that God has in store for us, we might fear the sickness or misfortune that looms in our future. We may anticipate family tension or spending Christmas isolated from our loved ones. We may even feel distant from God and afraid to come back to him.
But no matter how we feel, we can experience God’s goodness and love during Advent. Even our struggles can be an opportunity for God to work in our lives. Jesus wants to calm our fears and fill us with hope—a sure and certain trust in his promises. He wants us to hear his comforting voice, saying, “Do not be afraid.”
So let’s open our ears! Let’s begin our Advent journey from fear to hope, first with Zechariah and Elizabeth, and then with Mary and Joseph. And in our third article, we will learn both from the shepherds watching over their flocks and from St. Juan Diego, who heard God’s message through Mary.
“Do Not Be Afraid.” It’s one of the most frequently used phrases found in Scripture. From Abraham to the church in Smyrna, God repeatedly urges his people not to be afraid (Genesis 15:1; Revelation 2:10). He often speaks these words when someone faces a challenging situation or encounters an angelic messenger or God himself.
Of course, fear can be a gift when it’s a healthy response to danger. But fear can also overpower us. It can magnify the objects of our fear so much that we doubt that God is willing or able to help us. Fear can even rob us of a secure, trusting relationship with God.
When God tells us not to fear, he wants to fill our hearts with hope instead. Hope that he is with us. Hope that he is at work. Hope that he loves us and that our lives are safe in his hands. God wants to do for us what he did for Zechariah, when God promised that his wife, Elizabeth, would give birth to a son.
Faithful Servant of the Lord. We meet Zechariah, a priest, inside the Temple in Jerusalem. Luke tells us that he and Elizabeth were both descended from priestly tribes, advanced in years, and lived upright and righteous lives (1:5-6).We also learn that Zechariah had been chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary and burn the incense offering, a once-in-a-lifetime honor (1:8). But beneath this couple’s distinguished lineage, holy lives, and Zechariah’s honored role lay heartbreak: they were childless (1:7).
Zechariah probably carried this burden of disappointment as he began to make the offering. He may have also borne the sting of shame that infertility brought to childless couples in the ancient world. Maybe he and Elizabeth—and everyone else—wondered what sin they may had committed to deserve this “punishment” from the Lord. But whatever Zechariah may have expected, he probably never imagined what God had in mind.
A Messenger of Hope. As Zechariah prayed, he saw the angel Gabriel standing beside the altar of incense. Imagine the fright of seeing this mighty messenger—the same angel who appeared to the prophet Daniel (9:20-25). It’s no wonder Zechariah was terrified! Perhaps he feared that he would be punished for some unknown sins. But Gabriel greeted Zechariah with a message of peace: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John” (Luke 1:13).
Through Gabriel, God’s words pierced through Zechariah’s fear and spoke hope into the couple’s unanswered prayers. God knew their disappointment. He knew their fear that their prayer for a child would forever remain unheard. And he also knew how tempting it would be for them to doubt God’s faithfulness.
So Gabriel reassured Zechariah that God had not forgotten them—he had indeed heard their prayers. God would give them a son who would prepare God’s people for the Messiah. All along, God had been working to fulfill this couple’s longing through his plan of salvation. Zechariah no longer had to fear God’s judgment or fear being disappointed; God had addressed them both. God had been faithful to this couple, even in their pain and uncertainty, even when they couldn’t understand what he was doing.
Gabriel’s heavenly announcement should have brought Zechariah much joy and restored his hope in the Lord. But that took some time. Zechariah didn’t respond with great faith—not at first, anyway. Instead, he questioned the angel and focused on his own inability rather than trusting in the power of God. “How shall I know this?” he said. “I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years” (Luke 1:18). Because of Zechariah's unbelief, the angel told him he would not be able to speak until the promises were fulfilled.
Zechariah emerged from the sanctuary a humbled man. He couldn’t explain his amazing encounter with the Lord and remained silent for months. But in that silence, God was teaching Zechariah and changing his heart. And in a similar way, God can work in us during the quiet of the Advent season.
Listening for the Lord. If we want to hear God telling us, “Do not be afraid,” we might need to learn to quiet ourselves. Zechariah lost his ability to speak. He had no option but to be silent; we have to choose it. Advent offers us an opportunity to choose to sit in silence before the Lord and listen for his voice.
Of course, we may need to get creative in our pursuit of silence. We might find a quiet moment before a crèche at home. We might go to daily Mass or seek out the Adoration chapel. We might read our Bible in a peaceful corner before our family awakens. The quiet place could be anywhere; the important part is quieting our voice and minds.
In those moments, God can open our eyes to his goodness and fill our hearts with gratitude as we sit before him. If we listen, we may notice that our anxiety and worry about the future decrease. Thoughts of hope about the future may begin to fill our minds. We may even experience the Spirit bringing a phrase from Scripture or a Christmas carol to our minds. In these ways and so many others, God will speak to us, saying, “Fear not! I am with you.” And like Zechariah and Elizabeth, our hope will grow.
After his encounter with Gabriel, Zechariah and Elizabeth miraculously conceived, just as the angel had promised. What joy they must have experienced when Elizabeth gave birth to a son! But despite his joy, Zechariah still could not speak. It wasn’t until he wrote, “John is his name,” in obedience to the angel’s word, that his tongue was freed (Luke 1:63). Zechariah’s faith burst forth as he proclaimed, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, for he has visited and brought redemption to his people” (1:68). His fears of God’s judgment and abandonment gave way to trust and hope because God had not forsaken his people.
Hope for Us. Zechariah’s encounter with the Lord can encourage us during Advent. Like him, we too are waiting on the Lord. The past few years have provided many opportunities for suffering, and we may fear a similar future. Perhaps our hope has faded.
Perhaps, like Zechariah, you are disappointed or grieving; you may be weary as you wait for a reprieve or an answer to your prayers. You might feel oppressed by the turmoil and tragedy in the world and fear what the future holds. You might even fear that God is punishing you because of your sins. But Jesus wants to come close to you this Advent. He wants to calm your fears and fill you with hope.
The Lord sees your fears and disappointments and how they can make you doubt his goodness. But he also sees your faith and how you have tried your best to follow him. He doesn’t want you to be afraid of him or to avoid his presence. In fact, he wants to bring you closer to him than ever before and fill you with the confidence that Zechariah gained during his nine months of silence. While he couldn’t speak, Zechariah listened to God and began to understand his ways, to see the signs of his faithfulness in each day. That’s the gift God wants to give you this Advent.
So take these next four weeks and make room in your calendar for silence so that you can listen to the Lord. Bring your burdens and fears to him along with your mustard seed of faith and hope. Then allow him to make that seed grow. Soon there won’t be much room for fear—and you will welcome Jesus on Christmas Day, saying, “Blessed be the Lord! He has come to his people and set them free!”