Sunday, February 28, 2010

Holy Fear

Is it possible that preparing for mass by reading the selected scripture passages ahead of time can be a distraction? Too often, when I do so, my mind focuses on a particular phrase, such that throughout the Liturgy of the Word, I'm thinking about that one phrase - how the other readings are affected by it, how other non-selected parts of the scripture are affected by it, whether the celebrant will say anything about it in his homily, how it affects our broader spiritual life.

Almost invariably, the phrase upon which I've focused goes completely unnoticed by everyone else. It goes unmentioned in the homily, which I was only half-listening to because my attention was elsewhere. Truly full, conscious, and active participation in the mass, it seems, requires a self-discipline that I have yet to achieve.

The idea that commanded my attention this Sunday was holy fear. In the first reading from the Book of Genesis, we hear of God's promise to Abram (this was before his name was changed to Abraham). In obedience to God, Abram offers a sacrifice of a heifer, goat, ram, turtledove, and pigeon. All day long, the carcasses sit there, and Abram has to chase away the gathering vultures. As the day draws to a close, nothing has happened.

What happens next is what grabbed me: "As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram; and lo, a dread and great darkness fell upon him" (Genesis 15:12).

God was about to act, and after chasing vultures all day, maybe Abram was questioning whether he had heard God's instruction correctly. We don't know why, but we know that Abram fell into a state of darkness and fear.

How can this be related to the other selected readings?

In Luke's gospel account of the Transfiguration, "a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were afraid as they entered the cloud" (Luke 9:34). In Matthew, the fear comes when they hear the voice: "When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces, and they were filled with awe" (Matthew 17:6). According to Mark, they were afraid ever before the cloud or the voice from heaven: "And Peter said to Jesus, 'Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.' For he did not know what to say, for they were exceedingly afraid" (Mark 9:5-6).

Fear, it seems, is the natural response to an encounter with the divine.

Jesus, however, "came and touched them, saying, 'Rise and have no fear.'" (Matthew 17:7) The responsorial psalm (which, regrettably, we didn't hear in our parish) tells us, "Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; yea, wait for the Lord!" (Psalm 27:14)

Fear of the Lord is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and scripture (Proverbs 1:7) says that it is the beginning of wisdom. It is impossible not to be filled with awe when exposed to the full divinity of the creator of the universe. However, courage is also a gift of the Holy Spirit.

Like Abram, we must wait for the Lord, even when his promises seem delayed in coming. Even when his presence fills us with awe and fear, we still must be courageous in our obedience to his will.

It is easier said than done, as my personal failings demonstrate. God gives us sufficient grace, however, to make such courage and obedience possible for those who accept and cooperate with that grace.

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