Many of the words in today’s Gospel are fearsome but many events in the past couple of weeks have also been fearsome so they fit right in. We are rightly anxious about Terrorism although I personally find the hateful and fearmongering rhetoric of some politicians around the world, not least in the US much scarier.
I think it highly likely that Jesus is speaking about earth-shattering events in the sense that major terrorist attacks are earth-shattering. When such things happen, it feels like the sky is falling but it isn’t really. Since the prophets similar such language for horrific events, it makes sense to understand Jesus’ words in this way. This hardly takes the edge off the words or the events happening in our time. This point becomes all the stronger when we look at Jesus’ words earlier in the chapter. Jesus begins by warning that “not one stone will be left on stone” of the temple his disciples are admiring. For the Jews, the temple’s destruction in A.D. 70 was indeed earth-shaking, to put it mildly. Jesus goes on to warn of wars and rumors of wars and people all over the place claiming to be the Messiah, just like what is happening all around us today. Jesus goes on with persecutions and refugees fleeing violence, again an up-to-date report on what is happening. So, there is much reason to be afraid.
And yet Jesus tells us to hold our heads high because redemption is near. He further assures us with the little parable of the fig tree that will bear fruit in due season. The fruit may not be visible now but it is latent in the tree and the fruit will come.
Veronica Mary Rolf, a leading scholar of Julian or Norwich, has posted a timely article on her blog about what Julian has to say about fear. Julian faced the same fears we do so her words are most apposite. We can be afraid of 1) sudden alarms, such as a terrorist attack; 2) physical or spiritual pain, such as fear of sickness or fear of Hell; 3) “doubtful dread,” the fear that God’s forgiveness may not be complete These fears can have their uses but they should be overridden by “rightful fear,” which can also be called “reverent dread” or “holy awe.” This is awe of God’s lordship and God’s gift of salvation. We should shun the first three fears in favor of the fourth. The more deeply we are rooted in “rightful fear,” the less we will experience the first three.
Clearly, it is “rightful fear” and “holy awe” that gives us the power to hold our heads high amid the swirl of violence around us. Fear-mongering that would have us close our hearts to refugees and other people in dire need is clearly rooted in the first three fears with not a trace of the fourth. But with “rightful fear,” what we fear most is to fall short of the love God has for us and for all others, especially those fleeing violence in the dead of night. This is the fear that bears fruit when the season for it comes. John says that perfect love drives out fear (1 Jn. 4:18.) The obverse is true: perfect fear of the first three types casts out love. What will be our choice of fears?