2nd Sunday of Lent (A)
(Genesis 12:1-4; 2nd. Timothy 1:8-10; Matthew 17:1-9)
In our Gospel reading St. Matthew tells us:
A voice out of the cloud said, "This is My beloved Son, with Whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!" When the disciples heard this, they fell face down to the ground and were terrified.
Such fear of the Lord on the part of the disciples was a natural instinctive reaction to their experience of God’s overwhelming majesty and power, but also a fitting response in accordance with traditional wisdom in Israel. We read in the book of Deuteronomy:
And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (10:12)
Those were words of Moses given in his last testament to the People of Israel just before he died on the threshold of the Promised Land.
The Psalmist handed on this tradition, but also drew from it a conclusion most pertinent to our salvation, that those who truly fear the Lord should fear no man:
The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the defence of my life; whom shall I dread? (Psalm 27:1)
Let us , therefore, look at this question of 'fearing the Lord' because it is a subject that troubles many traditionally devout Catholics who are sometimes inclined to see sin too frequently and fear punishment excessively; others of a modern and liberal persuasion claim that the Gospel of Jesus has done away with all memories of such an Old Testament attitude as fear of the Lord, which they, consequently, either ignore or deride, often enough displaying a certain attitude of self-conscious superiority.
First of all we should just regard the facts. Fear is a necessary part of our human make-up. We fear fire because it burns and can be very dangerous for us; however, our fear of fire does not in any way prevent us from making use of it; it is a blessing that teaches us, simply, surely, and unfailingly, to respect fire. Likewise, although we who have faith fear God instinctively, because He is the Almighty, the ultimate and eternal Judge of our individually sinful lives; nevertheless, fear of Him should not be a mere reaction that paralyses us but, on the contrary, a faithful response that helps us relate to God in a more fitting manner.
All our natural fears: the dizziness we experience above ‘domestic’ heights luring us down, down; or the fainting of our own physical power we feel before the power of volcanic eruptions, tidal waves, overwhelming cosmic powers; or our total mental astonishment, amazement, and inadequacy at the incomprehensible multitude not only of stars but also of galaxies, and yet, wherewithal, the seemingly endless extent and ‘intensity’ of empty space; and finally indeed our very own fear before the mystery of death; all these are but reflections or intuitions of the supremely sensible fear of the Lord. Listen to Jesus speaking to us in St. Luke’ Gospel (12:4-5):
I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will show you whom you should fear: fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him!
However, in our Gospel reading today, those chosen disciples who were with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration and who, having just heard the voice of God the Father speaking from heaven were prostrate with fear, were told by Jesus:
Get up; do not be afraid.
Stand up, do not cower down, that was the voice of My Father and yours, do not be afraid! His voice was to strengthen Me for what is to come and to strengthen you also with Me. So stand up erect, for by listening and not reacting with fear but responding with trust, you will be strengthened to attain your destiny with Me; a destiny pictured and promised in the very last book of the Bible, the Revelation to St. John:
Then I saw in heaven something like a sea of glass mingled with fire. On the sea of glass were standing those who had won the victory over the beast; they were holding God’s harps, and they sang the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb: “Great and wonderful are Your works, Lord God almighty. Just and true are Your ways, O King of the nations. Who will not fear You, Lord, or glorify Your name? For You alone are holy. (Revelation 15:2–4)
We know, as Christians, that Jesus has come as our Saviour, and that He was sent to us by God Who wants to be a Father to us and to make us, in Jesus, His children. This Gospel of grace proclaimed by Our Lord is used, as I have mentioned, as a pretext by those who are presumptuous themselves and would persuade us that we should have no fear of God now that Jesus has come. Jesus did not come, however, to lead us to ignore the reality of our relationship with God and most certainly not to mock it; rather, He came to help us understand it -- Get up, hold your head high to listen and learn, for this is your Father speaking – embrace it, and then live it to the full as His disciples. He Himself, the Father's beloved, only-begotten Son, is the only one who can teach us how to appreciate the Father aright and how to live in filial and loving response to Him. Indeed, Jesus came to help us realize that the distance separating us from God which is at the root of our religious fear of God is, when rightly appreciated, a sublime measure of His love for us:
God, Who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (His beloved Son). (Ephesians 2:4-5)
Therefore, taking 'fear of the Lord' seriously, and trustingly acknowledging the reality of our being, we are led to appreciate something of the astounding love that surrounds us even here on earth and, what is even more, to entertain hope for, and even aspire to, the glory that awaits us in our heavenly home. That, our Christian attitude to life, is not only realistic and positive, but also supremely fulfilling and fruitful.
It is easy for people, at times, to slip from 'thinking' attitudes to 'instinctive' ones; and when this happens in the case of religious people, ‘fear of the Lord’, which should be both a considered, supernatural fear and also an appreciated and unfailing support, becomes degraded and deformed into a totally natural, feeling of fear; an inescapable anxiety before the God Who is mighty and awesome in Himself and so, threateningly above and beyond us. For those in such a state of mind, God's exaltation easily becomes suspect, for suspicion of God is the first dose of the devil’s poison; and when that happens, the feeble soul can easily fall under the rule of blind emotion and instinctive, raw fear, rather than find confident peace in a right understanding of ‘fear of the Lord’ as God-given for our salvation and strength.
God’s majesty and power, His wisdom and holiness, in other words, His transcendence, is essential and unquestionable for us who believe, but must be understood in the light, and embraced in the grace, of Jesus' Gospel if it is to become a transcendent power for salvation in our lives. God’s might and majesty, His all-seeing knowledge and wondrous wisdom, are various aspects of the One God and Father Who first of all called us to Jesus, and Who now offers us a share with Him in the bliss of heaven where Jesus is now seated at His right hand. Therefore our awareness of the greatness of God should help us to realise the wonder that Jesus came to help us recognize and embrace: namely the wonder that God, so glorious and majestic of Himself, has chosen us, has given His only begotten Son to us and for us, and, ultimately, wants to give us, in Jesus, a share in His own eternal blessedness. Moreover, that glorious God Who is so far above us can see all that would approach to harm us; Who is so mighty that nothing in heaven or on earth can penetrate the loving shield with which He wills to surround us; Who is all-knowing and all-seeing in His compassion for us that is all-embracing … knowing our every thought, our every feeling, even all the secret chemical changes that affect our bodies or the spiritual powers that would disturb our personality. With such a God to defend us we should be supremely confident, as was the psalmist of old who cried:
The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? (27:1)
This total confidence in Him Who is exalted is not just the stuff of great occasions; those unknown authors of the Psalms, the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth, life, and death on the Cross, show us that the very fabric of every-day living -- replete with every-day situations – can be shot through and through with that same saving thread of total confidence and trust in the One Who, though unseen, is more truly real and effective-for-good than all worldly appearances:
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever. (Psalm 23:4-6)
Do not fret because of evildoers, nor be envious of the workers of iniquity. For they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb. Trust in the LORD, and do good; dwell in the land, and feed on His faithfulness. Delight yourself also in the LORD, and He shall give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 37:1-4)
When we turn to the New Testament, St. Paul expresses this trust in and commitment to God in sublime words that only a great lover of Jesus could have used:
If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? … It is God who justifies, who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31-39)
And finally, supremely, Jesus Himself could say on the Cross:
Father, into Your hands I commend My Spirit.
And so, dear People of God, let us recognize the error of those who would scoff at the thought of fearing the Lord, for that is, indeed, a mark of supreme folly and potentially fatal pride. Only those who humbly embrace the fear of the Lord can, as we heard from the book of Revelation, truly glorify God:
Who will not fear you, Lord, or glorify your name?
Only they can experience the sublime confidence and joy, peace and strength, that enables true Christians to overcome the world with Jesus; just as our father Abraham was enabled, as you heard in the first reading, to leave his pagan background and set out, through unknown and hostile terrain, for the distant land of promise; and as St. Paul was never ashamed to bear testimony to Jesus but rather inspired to regard suffering for the Gospel as his supreme privilege and joy.