For every mention of “fear/afraid” in Sunday's Gospel passage, there is also a reference to God the Father.
The first words of Jesus in the Gospel this weekend are Fear no one. But notice: For every mention of “fear/afraid” in the passage, there is also a reference to God the Father. And that is the point. Jesus in his tenderness is all too aware of how much fear dominates our life. And, in his compassion, he wants to assure us that every experience of fear can be a chance to meet and embrace the Father.
Fear in darkness
It starts with: Fear no one. What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light. This particular word for “darkness” also means “night,” and it is used a total of seven times in the Gospel of Matthew. We first come across it in Mt 4:16 — a quotation from the prophet Isaiah: The people living in darkness has seen a great light. That Great Light speaks to this people today, wooing us away from the darkness in our life.
“Darkness” makes us think of things we would prefer to keep hidden from others. It’s into the darkness that we try to cram all our sins and conceal the shame that goes with them. But we also want to keep people in the dark about our inadequacy, our weakness and limitations, our vulnerability, our self-loathing, our all-too-real defects that depress us. As a friend of mine says, “We are as sick as our secrets.” The Catholic author George Bernanos, in one of his novels, describes a particular character this way: She bore with herself “a fear that had been stuffed into the deepest part of her being, like frost in the heart of a tree.”
Jesus speaks to us in that darkness to free us, and he asks us to let that encounter with Love in the darkness to be the starting point for speaking about Jesus to others. Reflecting on the mystery of fear and courage, Dominican Fr. Servais Pinckaers wrote:
Sometimes, from the depths of our unconscious, fears rise up that have accumulated through long years; they combine and form a mass of indistinct, faceless disturbances that weigh us down and almost submerge us. If we want to overcome this kind of fear in a peaceful acceptance of ourselves as we are, without fatalism or despair, we need a new faith in someone stronger than ourselves. We need confidence in the One who has called us into being and who draws us to himself, the One who is flawless and eternal Being.
The Passion narrative in Matthew tells us that from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land (Mt 27:45). And it is in the midst of that terrible darkness that we hear the crucified Jesus say, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:45-46). This is a cry more of mercy than of misery meant for us, to assure us that the only thing to fear is ever being separated from the Father, who will never abandon his Son. Or any of his children.
Fear of falls
Do not be afraid of those who kill the body, Jesus encourages us. For, alluding to some of the littlest and least significant of God’s creatures — sparrows — Jesus continues: Not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge.
We need to hear this, because there’s something major we have in common with sparrows. We fall. We fail. Wrestling with temptations … giving into them … we crash and burn. And it leaves us feeling worthless. Disgrace leads to denial.
But the only one really who can kill the soul is ourselves when we give up on our soul and its God-given destiny. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that the reason why Jesus says Do not fear is “because we should only fear evil. Do not fear, because if your truth is not well known right away, eventually it will be well known.”
St. Ambrose helps us understand this:
It is the part of a perfect person not to succumb to those things which seem to most terrible and dreadful, but like a brave soldier to sustain the onset of the severest troubles and undergo the conflict, and like a prudent steersman to guide the ship in the storm, for one avoids shipwreck by braving the surging waves and passing through them rather than by turning away from them. Such a person does not fear in persecution, nor waver under torture; rather, they are like a strong athlete who strikes back the person who hits them, if not to the point of bloodshed, then at least with the scourge of his words, saying, “arrows of infants their blows have become.” Let him who struggles, even with the gravest suffering, not appear miserable, but let him show, like a light in a lantern, even amidst fierce storms and heavy winds, that he can let the inextinguishable strength of his will shine forth.
Keep in mind that, in his Passion, Jesus himself will fall to the ground like a wounded sparrow (see Mt 26:39). We listen closely to Fr. Cornelius a Lapide, S.J.: “God your Father formed you in his own likeness and endowed you with reason. And he has reformed you by Christ and made you saints and apostles like unto Christ. That is why he does not allow you to be harmed or killed by persecutors, unless it be to grant you a better, supremely happy life and crown through martyrdom.”
Fear of speaking out
And Jesus also commands us to acknowledge him before others … which will lead to Jesus acknowledging us before his heavenly Father.
“Act out before the world what you are in your heart of hearts,” Jesus is telling them. An essential aspect of the Christian’s relationship to his Lord is their willingness to take off the mask of conventionality before the world and reveal their innermost identity as a permanent disciple of so good and great a Master. (Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis)
A verse from a Cistercian chant goes: “Victorious love shouts to the four winds. You who follow Jesus, do not fear what leads to death, rather fear to yield to fear.” As Bernanos observes, “When you weigh fear and courage from within the Garden of Gethsemane, where all human anguish became divinized in the Lord’s adorable heart, then the distinction between them appears to me close to superfluous.” Because there we live in the embrace of the Father.