My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Welcome to this week’s Bishop’s Blog!We are given another new commandment it seems: Do not be afraid. And as with all new commandments, we must be taught just how we are to keep it.
Fear is a factor in our lives. It will play its part in our story. It works at various levels, often unsought, always unwelcome.A child will inevitably know fear, at home, in school and in the world. Adults know fear too, grown-up fear, anxieties, threats, uncertainties. Failing health, declining faculties, consequences of wrong-doing, failing in our responsibilities for others who depend on us. Then there is the fear that comes with our mortality, dying, and the unknown that will follow.Jesus knew fear and yet He says to His disciples in every age, ‘Do not be afraid. Why do you fear?’ where did He find these words in His humanity? We are led back to the Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel spoke to Mary. ‘Mary, do not be afraid. You have won God’s favour.’It was a message, a moment, that profoundly affected her. It shook her to the core. It stayed with her for the rest of her life, becoming part of her learning to carry God’s Son. Undoubtedly, she knew God intimately before the Annunciation, but she still had more to learn of Him.
As I have grown up, and grown older, I’ve found myself remembering my parents partly by recalling things they said years ago, sayings they had and repeated. At the time I often thought little of it, but over the years their words have become ‘food for thought,’ a lovely phrase.Did Mary repeat Gabriel’s words to the child Jesus as she taught Him His prayers and how He should know the God of Israel? Surely she did. On one occasion they found Him sitting with the Doctors of the Law in the Temple, and they removed Him, taking Him home to continue His studies there, at the feet of His mother and St.Joseph, submissive, humble, meek. These are attitudes that enable us to learn not to fear. He learnt that we should not be afraid in our religion.And yet, in this Gospel today, He tells the disciples not to be afraid only to tell them of another fear. ‘Fear Him rather who can destroy both body and soul in hell.’ It would appear that the only way to overcome one fear is to replace it with another. Can that be good? Is that healing? Are we then better off? It appears we are.
At Confirmation one of the gifts we are given is the Fear of the Lord. I suspect it is a gift that many of the confirmandi do not open. But perhaps it is the gift – out of all seven – that is the key to opening the other six gifts.
Today’s Collect uses the word ‘revere’. Grant, O Lord, that we may always revere and love your name . . . ‘ Reverence is a form of fear, but a positive fear, because it knows something. This is the fear Jesus tells us to have for God, a fear of God based not on what He can do – destroy both body and soul in hell – but based on who He is.If we find ourselves living our religion, our Faith, without this reverence we lack something essential. We become like the servant who received the single talent only to go and bury it. And it lay unused, hidden in the soil. It lay as if dead, as if never given. It is not able to do what it is designed for. You may argue, yes, but what if it is a seed? Well, if it is a seed it is unfortunately still in its plastic packaging! It stands no chance.A story is told of a family who lived isolated on the edge of a great forest. To get to town and school they had to take a winding path through the forest. When the children were young the parents would go with them to and from town or school. But as the children grew they were expected to make their own way. Children have vivid imaginations. They grew to fear the path and the forest, but the parents were busy and insisted.
The children’s fear became so great that it threatened their education, so the parents came up with a solution. They gave each of the children a holy medal. ‘Keep that with you and no harm will come to you as you pass through the forest.’ And so the children would make the journey, clasping the medals, but still full of fear in case they lost their medal or forgot it or had it taken from them. It was only a partial solution.That is not our Faith. That is not our religion.
Jesus Himself knew fear. We only need to remember His state in the Garden of Gethsemane. He knows what troubles us in this life. To overcome our fear He instructs us to replace this fear with this other fear, reverence, Fear of the Lord. It is a gift of the Spirit. Reverence will grow and deepen as we listen to Jesus’ teaching, but especially as we spend time in His company. Here I mention how delighted I am that so many of our churches have been able to open to parishioners for personal prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. This prayer in Christ’s presence will bear fruit in greater confidence. Confidence comes as we understand prayer as a constant invitation and opportunity to know the Lord who loves us more than we could ever hope or imagine.
Poor Judas knew fear after he betrayed his Master. Tragically he ended his fear by ending his life. It need not have come to that. There was another way for him as there is for us.
The prophet Jeremiah says in today’s first reading, ‘The Lord is at my side, a mighty hero.’ But even that doesn’t quite do it, there is a further step to be taken. His prayer is in the third person, as though he talks about God who is not quite near enough. What is the step that can fulfil the Lord’s command to ‘Have no fear’? Jeremiah expresses it when he goes on to say, ‘Lord, I have committed my cause to You.’ This is not saying something wonderful about the God we believe in, it is talking with God, and that is the place Jesus wants us to reach. May it be so for each of us, whatever our fears may be in these times.
May God bless you all,
Bishop of Swarbrick