It happened over a half century ago, but I still remember clearly the day that Santa Claus came to our kindergarten classroom. In scheduling Santa's surprise visit, the teacher must have thought it would be a treat for all of us. What stands out in my memory, though, is the fright it gave me when he came through the door shouting in a loud voice. But every year during this season, I also remember a whispered message of comfort that I received from that same Santa on that day long ago.

Our teacher had arranged for Santa to make a dramatic entry one afternoon. We were all sitting at our desks doing our typical kindergarten thing, when suddenly the door burst open, and in came a large bearded man in a red suit with white trimming. "Ho, ho, ho, boys and girls!" he bellowed. He continued to shout: "I'm here to find out who has been naughty and nice this year!" I was terrified, and knew my classmates were too.

Santa sat in a chair in front of the class. Again he spoke in what seemed to my five-year-old ears like a thundering voice: "I would like you children to take turns sitting on my lap, and I'm going to ask you questions about what you would like for Christmas this year! And I want to check to see whether you deserve to receive any presents at all! Who will be first?"

Santa scanned the room. None of us made a move. Finally, he pointed his finger straight at me. "That young man there. Come up here and sit on my lap." I was frozen to my seat, but Santa coaxed me forward. Reluctantly I made my way to his chair. Santa took hold of me with strong hands and placed me on his lap. He could not help but feel my trembling body.

Then an important thing happened. The person playing the role of Santa that day, it turned out, was a man from our church, Mr. Cooper. I knew him well, although I did not recognize him in his disguise. Sensing my fright, Santa whispered in my ear, in a gentle voice that only I could hear: "Richard! It's OK. It's me, Mr. Cooper. Don't be afraid."

As soon as I figured out what was going on, I relaxed. I was able to answer Santa's questions. His voice took on a much kinder, reassuring tone for the rest of his visit. And when it was clear that I could handle my encounter with Santa Claus, the rest of the class seemed to relax as well.

I think about that encounter with Santa every Christmas season. As I have gotten older, it's become obvious to me that he was an important bearer of the Christmas message for me that day in the kindergarten classroom. "Don't be afraid," he told me.

Whether Mr. Cooper realized it or not, when he whispered those words to me he was expressing a major theme in the Bible's account of the events leading up to the birth of Jesus. Mary was frightened when the angel came to tell her she was pregnant, and the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid." The angel also visited Joseph to encourage him to marry his pregnant fiancée: "Do not be afraid," the heavenly messenger said to him.

And then there was that wonderful night when the shepherds were suddenly surrounded by the bright light of God's glory as an angel appeared to them. "And they were terrified," the Gospel writer tells us. But the angel spoke these words again: "Do not be afraid; for see-I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord."

This year, once again, I need to hear the words that Mr. Cooper spoke to me as a child-words that are also the message of the Christmas angels. "Do not be afraid." I always knew in an intellectual sort of way that people in many parts of the world live in daily fear of death and mass destruction. But those fears have now come very close to home for me-and for all of us who live in North America and other "advanced" societies. Our buildings, our planes, our military fortresses-none of these feel as safe as they did only a few years ago.

I am glad, then, that we can celebrate Christmas again. I've heard the Christmas message many times before, but some words will come to me this year with new meaning and as a new source of comfort. "Do not be afraid." I'm thankful to Mr. Cooper for whispering that message to a frightened child. But I am even more thankful that God sent the angels to say those words to people long ago-and to all of us today who see the birth of the baby Jesus as the most significant event in all of history.

The Christmas story tells me that the vulnerable baby who lay in the manger is "God with us." God knows what it is like to be afraid. And when God's messengers tell me that I do not have to be afraid anymore in the deep places of my being, I can get on with the important task of living the life that God wants me to live.

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