“It is I; do not be afraid.”1This is a familiar pattern. The Gospel narratives are full of instances where Jesus appears to his followers in a way that causes them terror. These experiences of fear seem to come in response to those moments in which Christ’s divinity is revealed, full and alive within his human vesture. In Mark’s Gospel, the angel of the Lord tells the women at the tomb that Jesus has arisen as he said; to this, we respond, “Alleluia,”2but this news prompted the women to flee from the tomb, “for terror and amazement had seized them.”3 At the Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John are clearly astonished throughout the episode, but fall over in terror at the Father’s proclamation that, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” This fear is only calmed by Jesus touching the disciples and telling them “do not be afraid.”4
But then, Jesus’s revelation does not only cause fear among his disciples. In John’s Gospel, Christ asks the company of men who had come to arrest him, “Whom are you looking for?” They answer, “Jesus of Nazareth,” and he replies, “I am he.” At this, the men “stepped back and fell to the ground.”5 Falling to the ground implies an uncontrolled, instinctual response. Like a person whose hand touches the hot burner of a stove, this is not a thought-out reaction.
But that is easier to explain. An adversary of Jesus might very well recoil from him. Somewhere in the recesses of the soul, a man might know he is playing with fire before he ever consciously processes that danger. That doesn’t explain, though, why Jesus’s followers must repeatedly be reminded that he is who he is, and that they must repeatedly go through bouts of fear at these reminders. And of course, this isn’t a problem relegated to history. I often tremble at those brushes with divinity, however faint and rare and brief they are, that God sees fit to grant me in my prayer. They are intense, alive, electric. They are love. And they are terrifying.
It further confuses to know two very different responses to fear given in Scripture. We are repeatedly exhorted to fear God that we may enter into his love.6 We are also told that perfect love casts out fear.7 Maybe the answer is, then, that fear is a necessary component of faith before the perfect, loving fullness of time comes. We have reason to fear the love of God, in its confusing, shattering, beckoning, illuminating totality. We have reason to look upon the baffling promise of union with God, of redemption and glorification, as an unknown. The unknown, in general, is frightening. How terrifying, then, is it to be told that this, what we know ourselves to be, what we have always known ourselves to be, will be radically changed? To be told that we don’t even know ourselves? At least, not like this Son of Man does.
But what is unknown will not always be. The imageless God has taken form and shown his face. The veil has been torn. The light has come into the world. It is understandable to look upon this with fear, because at present, we see only dimly. But as we lift our eyes to gaze across the dark waters, arrested by the luminous, ghostly figure of Love-made-flesh walking calmly toward us, as we feel the fear penetrate to our bones at what this could possibly mean, we can take heart, for it is he, and we need not be afraid.
- John 6:20
- Regina Coeli
- Mark 16:5-8
- Matthew 17:1-7
- John 18:3-6
- Psalm 33:8, 18-19
- 1 John 4:18
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