Free to worship without fear

Then Zechariah his father, filled with the holy Spirit, prophesied, saying:

“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
for he has visited and brought redemption to his people.
He has raised up a horn for our salvation
within the house of David his servant,
to grant us that, rescued from the hand of enemies,
without fear we might worship him in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days
— Luke 1:67-73

Art tends to portray them as facing away (the wing shot) or sideways (the trumpet pose) or as busy, finely robed figures in the heavenly court. Angels never look you in the eye.

Which is why this image of this particular angel seems important. It asks us to consider a real encounter with these beings that either are or are not more than characters in ancient stories or statues in our gardens and cemeteries.

Gabriel was no decoration atop a mantle. He was dispatched on a number of occasions with real responsibilities. I especially treasure the story of his errand involving Zechariah. It has more of something (is it spunk?) than other exchanges between angels and humans recorded in the Bible.

I wonder if John the Baptist’s father believed in making eye contact with angels prior to one showing up and upending his life. Or if angels bearing God’s good news waltzed in not really caring whether Zechariah, Mary, and Joseph believed in them. My money is on the latter.

Gabriel, after all, doesn’t come across as needing much in the way of affirmation. He means to do his duty and perhaps for that reason is unenthused by Zechariah’s request for a sign. We might think it is God who causes Zechariah to lose his voice for a spell. Arguably, this is Gabriel’s doing (v.20).

The oft-cited connection between angels the words do not be afraid... This too is on my spiritual radar. Angels may in fact be scary-looking. What do I know? But I don’t think that is our take away.

If God’s people are free to worship without fear by virtue of the birth of John (v.74), this raises the question of what it meant to worship with fear. Put another way, Zechariah’s celebration of fear being lifted points out that fear had in fact covered the land.

When we hear the angels say do not fear, may I suggest that we refrain from assuming that the fear is akin to seeing a ghost? If we can tap into Zechariah, Mary, and Joseph’s actual fears, we can more fully access the grace—the grace that finds them and now searches for us.


Rachel May