2nd Sunday of Lent (A)
(Genesis 12:1-4; 2nd. Timothy 1:8-10; Matthew 17:1-9)
In our Gospel reading St. Matthew told 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 traditional in Israel. They were the Chosen People, the first to be called as such by God, that through them He might ultimately draw all mankind to Himself in likeness and love. To attain that likeness He was manifesting Himself and His majesty – His intimate awareness of our human hearts and His cosmic power over all creation – and that they might learn from His teaching, those sinful, divisive and selfish, early Isrealites had, first of all, to fear and obey God physically in order that they might then be able to gradually understand mentally and spiritually embrace His teaching in the Law and the Prophets and finally come to love His likeness in a new holiness of life. Our Blessed Lord Jesus -- God’s only-begotten Son made flesh -- was the Father’s supreme inducement to love Him, and we, as disciples of Jesus Our Lord are now learning from Him by His Spirit and want wholeheartedly to conceive a fear both spiritual and true as an unbreachable safeguard for our life of love as children of God in the Family of God.
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)
Such were the words of Moses in his last testament given to the People of Israel just before he died on the threshold of the Promised Land.
The Psalmist handed on this tradition, and drew from it the conclusion 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 some traditionally devout Catholics on the one hand, who are inclined to see sin too frequently and fear punishment excessively, while others of a more 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 mistaken and unpleasant attitude of conscious superiority.
First of all, we should just regard the facts. For us human beings fear is an essential part of our make-up: we fear fire because it burns and is always – potentially -- very dangerous for us; we, who have faith, fear God, instinctively, because He, the Almighty, will be the ultimate Judge of our individually sinful lives. However, our fear of fire does not in any way prevent us from learning about it, to respect and appreciate it; in like manner, fear of God should not paralyse believers but, on the contrary, help them to relate to God in a fitting manner. All our natural fears: the fainting we experience before the overwhelming power of volcanic eruptions, tidal waves, cosmic powers and the immeasurable abyss of seemingly endless and empty space, and indeed the threat of suffering and death, all these are but faint reflections or intuitions of the supremely sensible ‘fear of the Lord’. Listen to Jesus:
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! (Luke 12:4-5)
We know, as Christians, that Jesus came as our Saviour, and that He was sent to us by the God Who wants to be our Father and to make us, in Jesus, His true children. This Gospel of grace, proclaimed by Our Lord, is, as I have said, the pretext given by certain un-fearing pseudo-Christians who would persuade us that we should have no fear of God now that Jesus has come. Jesus, however, did not come to lead us to ignore the reality, the truth, of our relationship with God and most certainly not to mock it; rather He came to help us to understand it, so as to be able to embrace it, and then live it to the full as His disciples. He Himself, the Father's beloved, only-begotten Son, was the only one – being both perfect God and perfect Man -- who could teach us, as human beings, how to appreciate the Father aright and how to live in filial relationship with and loving response to Him whatever our life situation might be. Indeed, Jesus came to enable us to realize that the distance that separates us from God and which is at the root of our religious fear of God, is, when rightly appreciated, the ultimate measure of His love for us:
God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love He had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ. (Eph. 2:4-5)
Therefore, taking 'fear of the Lord' seriously we are led both to truthfully acknowledge reality and appreciate something of the love that surrounds us here on earth, and also to learn to entertain hope for the glory, that God tells us, awaits us in our heavenly home. In that way, our Christian attitude to life is not only realistic, but also supremely positive and fruitful.
It is easy for people, at times, to let themselves slip from 'thinking' attitudes to 'instinctive' ones; and when this happens in the case of religious people, ‘fear of the Lord’, which should be a considered, appreciated, and supernatural fear, becomes degraded to totally natural, 'feeling fear': an anxiety before the God Who is both mighty and awesome in Himself, and mysteriously above and beyond us. For those in this state of mind, God's exaltation easily becomes suspect, and suspicion of God is the first dose of the devil’s poison; when that happens, God’s exaltation and glory come to be seen as alienation and threat, and the devout soul can then easily fall in the thrall of blind emotion and instinctive fear, rather than walk under the guidance of faith and understanding.
God’s majesty and power, His wisdom and holiness, in other words, His transcendence, is essential and unquestionable for us who believe, but it must be understood in the light and grace of Jesus' Gospel if it is to be rightly appreciated. 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 enable 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, actually loves us; indeed, He 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, indeed, so far above us, can see all that would approach to harm us, and He is so mighty that nothing in heaven or on earth can penetrate the loving shield with which He surrounds us; He Who is all-knowing and all-seeing has a compassion for us that is all-embracing: He knows our every thought, our every feeling, even all the secret chemical changes that can affect our physical bodies or the spiritual powers that would invade 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? (Psalm 27:1)
This total confidence in Him Who is exalted is not just the stuff of great occasions; those unknown authors of the Psalms and 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 real 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. 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 (that is, His Church), and feed on His faithfulness. Find your delight in the LORD, and He will 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, 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, and 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 folly of those who would scoff at the words "fear the Lord"; for their attitude is tragically wrong and reveals both a mind overcast with dark clouds of folly and a heart severely wounded and belittled by pride; for only those who know the fear of the Lord can, in turn, experience the sublime confidence and joy that enable true Catholics and Christians to overcome the world with Jesus: just as, indeed, 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 just as St. Paul learned never to be ashamed to bear testimony to Jesus but rather was positively inspired to regard suffering for Jesus and the Gospel as the supreme privilege and joy life could offer.