Have Fear But Do Not Be Afraid
Gospel Commentary for 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time
By Father Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap
ROME, JUNE 20, 2008
(<You must be logged in to see this link.).- This Sunday's
Gospel contains a number of ideas but they all
can be summarized in this apparently
contradictory phrase: "Have fear but do not be
afraid." Jesus says: "Do not be afraid of those
who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul;
fear rather him who has the power to make both
the soul and the body perish in Gehenna." We must
not be afraid of, nor fear human beings; we must
fear God but not be afraid of him.
There is a difference between being afraid and
fearing and I would like to take this occasion to
try to understand why this is so and in what this
difference consists. Being afraid is a
manifestation of our fundamental instinct for
preservation. It is a reaction to a threat to our
life, the response to a real or perceived danger,
whether this be the greatest danger of all,
death, or particular dangers that threaten our
tranquility, our physical safety, or our affective world.
With respect to whether the dangers are real or
imagined, we say that someone is "justifiably" or
"unjustifiably" or "pathologically" afraid. Like
sicknesses, this worry can be acute or chronic.
If it is acute, it has to do with states
determined by situations of extraordinary danger.
If I am about to be hit by a car or I begin to
feel the earth quake under my feet, this is being
acutely afraid. These "scares" arise suddenly and
without warning and cease when the danger has
passed, leaving, if anything, just a bad memory.
Being chronically afraid is to be constantly in a
state of preoccupation, this state grows up with
us from birth or childhood and becomes part of
our being, and we end up developing an attachment
to it. We call such a state a complex or phobia:
claustrophobia, agoraphobia, and so on.
The Gospel helps to free us from all of these
worries and reveals their relative, non-absolute,
nature. There is something of ours that nothing
and no one in the world can truly take away from
us or damage: For believers it is the immortal
soul; for everyone it is the testimony of their own conscience.
The fear of God is quite different from being
afraid. The fear of God must be learned: "Come,
my children, listen to me," a Psalm says, "I will
teach you the fear of the Lord" (33:12); being
afraid, on the other hand, does not need to be
learned at school; it overtakes us suddenly in
the face of danger; the things themselves bring about our being afraid.
But the meaning itself of fearing God is
different from being afraid. It is a component of
faith: It is born from knowledge of who God is.
It is the same sentiment that we feel before some
great spectacle of nature. It is feeling small
before something that is immense; it is stupor,
marvel mixed with admiration. Beholding the
miracle of the paralytic who gets up on his feet
and walks, the Gospel says, "Everyone was in awe
and praised God; filled with fear they said:
'Today we have seen wondrous things'" (Luke
5:26). Fear is here simply another name for stupor and praise.
This sort of fear is a companion of and allied to
love: It is the fear of offending the beloved
that we see in everyone who is truly in love,
even in the merely human realm. This fear is
often called "the beginning of wisdom" because it
leads to making the right choices in life. Indeed
it is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit! (cf. Isaiah 11:2).
As always, the Gospel does not only illumine our
faith but it also helps us to understand the
reality of everyday life. Our time has been
called "the age of anxiety" (W.H. Auden).
Anxiety, which is closely related to being
afraid, has become the sickness of the century
and it is, they say, one of the principal causes
of the large number of heart attacks. This spread
of anxiety seems connected with the fact that,
compared with the past, we have many more forms
of economic insurance, life insurance, many more
means of preventing illness and delaying death.
The cause of this anxiety is the diminishing --
if not the complete disappearance -- in our
society of the holy fear of God. "No one fears
God anymore!" We say this sometimes jokingly but
it contains a tragic truth. The more that the
fear of God diminishes, the more we become afraid of our fellow men!
It is easy to understand why this is the case.
Forgetting God, we place all our confidence in
the things of this world, that is, in the things
that Christ says "thieves can steal and moths
consume" -- uncertain things that can disappear
from one moment to the next, that time (and
moths!) inexorably consume, things that everyone
is after and which therefore cause competition
and rivalry (the famous "mimetic desire" of which
René Girard speaks), things that need to be
defended with clenched teeth and, sometimes, with a gun in hand.
The decline in fear of God, rather than
liberating us from worry, gets us more entangled
in worry. Look at what happens in the
relationship between children and parents in our
society. Fathers no longer fear God and children
no longer fear fathers! The fear of God is
reflected in and analogous to the reverential
fear of children for parents. The Bible
continually associates the two things. But does
the lack of this reverential fear for their
parents make the children and young people of
today more free and self-confident? We know well
that the exact opposite is true.
The way out of the crisis is to rediscover the
necessity and the beauty of the holy fear of God.
Jesus explains to us in the Gospel that we will
hear on Sunday that the constant companion of the
fear of God is confidence in God. "Are not two
sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of
them falls to the ground without your Father's
knowledge. Even all the hairs of your head are
counted. So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows!"
God does not want us to be afraid of him but to
have confidence in him. It is the contrary of
that emperor who said: "Oderint dum metuant" --
"Let them hate me so long as they are afraid of
me!" Our earthly fathers must imitate God; they
must not make us afraid of them but have
confidence in them. It is in this way that
respect is nourished: admiration, confidence,
everything that falls under the name of "holy fear."
[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic
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Send Oh Lord Holy Apostles into your church“Christ has no body but yours, no hands butyours, no feet but yours.Yours are the eyes through which Christ’scompassion must look upon the world.Yours are the feet with which He is to go about
doing good.Yours are the hands with which He is to bless us now.”St. Theresa of Avila