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Fearful Yet Overjoyed

It’s a curious thing that a father does. The same child that he protects and cradles, he takes in his hands and throws into the air. . .up above his head. . .lets him fall back. . .and then catches again. And again throws him. . .lets him fall. . .and catches him. It seems odd to do to a child. But watch. The child laughs and even shrieks with delight. He screams in mid-flight and giggles when caught.

There is fear of being in the air, without support, helpless and not in control. There is fear of being so dependent on this big man. But then there is the joy of being received back into his arms and brought close to him again. All one fluid motion, the throwing and the catching. Which means that the fear and the joy are united as well.

Then they went away quickly from the tomb, fearful yet overjoyed, and ran to announce this to his disciples. (Mt 28:8) This description of the women on Easter Sunday resembles the fear and joy that the child experiences in his father’s arms. As in that experience, the fear and joy in this instance are united, one being impossible without the other.

The fear of the women is, of course, the reverence that we call fear of the Lord. They just encountered the angel and received news of something beyond their control. Christ is risen. No human intellect can make sense of it, no human power can tame it. The women are reminded powerfully of that fundamental truth: He is God and we are not. Their smallness – and ours – is evident.

In His Resurrection appearances, Jesus always teaches the transcendence and otherness that elicits fear. He cannot be controlled. He is master of the situation, remaining for a time unrecognizable to Mary Magdalene, the disciples on the road, the Apostles in the boat. Revealing Himself only on His own terms. He suddenly disappears in Emmaus. And just as suddenly appears before the Apostles. The Lord rebukes the two people – Mary Magdalene and Thomas – who try to have Him on their own terms. The risen Christ will not be domesticated. He must be feared in order to be received.

Only when that fear is present can joy arise. Easter joy is not something manufactured or created by us. It comes from the Resurrection or not at all, precisely and only when we surrender control and allow the risen Lord to intrude on our gatherings and activities just as surely as He appeared on the road, in the upper room, and on the seashore. If we want Him on our own terms – and thus without fear – then it is not the risen Lord we want, but a caricature.

Fear and joy seem always to have been together, or at least meant to be. Adam’s joy depended on a healthy reverence for that one prohibition and the ominous warning: lest you die. When he and Eve reached out to grasp – that is, to control God’s arrangement, to define their own reality – at that very moment their joy was lost. They even hid from God.

Since that moment, we children of Adam have suffered the deep, sinful inclination to wrest control from God, for ourselves. We are constantly grasping for joy on our own terms and, therefore, always losing it. This is at the core of sin, to prefer our reality to God’s, to seek joy on our own terms.

Such has always been the case. But this is also a timely consideration, because we live in an irreverent and therefore a joyless culture. We lack fear of the Lord and consequently lack authentic joy, settling for pleasure as a cheap imitation.

This matter of fear of the Lord – whether we are reverent or irreverent – determines how we view the world. In short, reality is either given and received, or invented and imposed. By fear of the Lord, we receive the reality of which God Himself is the Author. We conform ourselves to the Author’s will and plot line. By our irreverence, however, we invent our own reality, and impose it on others. These fault lines lie in every human heart.

But as much as every human heart may struggle, in the past there was at least general agreement that reality is not something we invent but something given to us and received. Now, however, the invention of reality is not only possible, but essential to society. Our impiety and irreverence is codified: At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. An invented reality, having no objective truth, cannot be agreed upon. It must be imposed.

Indeed, these fault lines – given and received, invented and imposed – are writ large in society. They characterize all our debates: about sex, sexuality, marriage, law, and even liturgy. Either we receive the given truth of these and find joy therein, or we make it up and force others to come along. Technology exacerbates the problem, making us feel like masters of time and space, thus having the authority and power to define existence, meaning, universe, and life.

Fearful yet overjoyed. This describes those first messengers of the Resurrection, the first Christian witnesses. So also should it describe Christians today. The world cries out for such witnesses, for those who joyfully point beyond this world to eternal truths. We ought, then, to be fearful – acknowledging our smallness, our absolute dependence on the Author of life and the reality of His creation.

And precisely because of that holy fear we should also be found joyful – ever rejoicing in what He has done for us, in being caught once more and gathered to His bosom.

Fr. Paul Scalia is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, VA, where he serves as Episcopal Vicar for Clergy and Pastor of Saint James in Falls Church. He is the author of That Nothing May Be Lost: Reflections on Catholic Doctrine and Devotion and the editor of Sermons in Times of Crisis: Twelve Homilies to Stir Your Soul.