Is it right to fear God? What is the difference between a destructive fear and a “holy trepidation”? An Advent homily by Fr Stephen Wang:
Look around you at the chapel walls. Look at the religious symbols that surround us. What do they all have in common? They are all about the past: The Virgin Mother holding her child Jesus; the Stations of the Cross; the Crucifix above the altar; the portrait of Blessed John Henry Newman. All the images are taking us back: to Bethlehem, to first century Jerusalem, to nineteenth century Birmingham, where Cardinal Newman lived.
It wasn’t always like this. The first Christian churches in the East usually had an image of Christ Pantocrator, Christ the Universal King, in the apse behind the altar – ruling from his throne in heaven. And even our churches in the medieval West, with a crucifix above the altar or a rood screen in front of the sanctuary, when you turned around to walk out of the western door, on the wall above you, there would often see a painting of the Last Judgment. It was placed here very deliberately. Your last thoughts, as you left the church, were about the future. What future lies ahead of you? And with that knowledge: What do you want to make of your life in the coming week?
Today is the First Sunday of Advent, and it puts our focus firmly on the future. At the End of Time, the Son of Man will come in great power and glory. All of us will stand before him, to give an account of our lives. It will be a merciful judgment, thank God, because he is merciful and full of forgiveness. But it will depend in part on whether we have been merciful ourselves, and whether we are open to receiving his mercy. This is our faith: the Second Coming of Jesus Christ at the End of Time; the Final Judgment.
How do we react? Well I’m guessing there are all sorts of different reactions, but they probably fall under two headings.
First, a sense of joy and hope. Christ is coming. This is his promise to us. He has not abandoned us. Very often, we can’t make sense of what is happening in our life, or in the world around us, especially when there is so much chaos and violence. We are tempted to despair, as if God has forgotten us, or worse, that he does remember us but doesn’t care. A life that should be full of meaning can seem to be without purpose or direction.
Advent is a reminder that God has not forgotten his people, that he has not forgotten you. He is present in your life now, working very powerfully, perhaps in quiet and hidden ways. All time belongs to him: this is what we pray at the Easter Vigil, and this is the meaning of the Second Coming. He is the Lord of History. His timing is not always our timing, which is why we get frustrated and even angry. But he knows what he is doing. He will put things right, triumphantly, at the right time.
This is not an excuse for passivity, and we are called to build the Kingdom and fight for justice. But when things seem to be going wrong we need to remember that it is his work and only he can bring it to fulfilment.
And just as he will come, at the very end, to fulfil his promises and help us to make sense of all that has happened; so he comes to us at different times along the way, and helps us make sense of what is happening. Each day of advent gets darker and darker, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, but the light of the Second Coming, and the light of Christmas, gets brighter and brighter, illuminating the path even now. I cannot imagine the existential confusion of celebrating Advent in Australia as it gets hotter and brighter with every day.
A second reaction to the Final Judgment is trepidation. I can’t find a better word than this. I don’t want to say fear because that’s too negative. Trepidation implies fear, excitement, anxiety, apprehension, alertness. It comes from a Latin word that means to be “alarmed”. You know when you are woken in the middle of the night by an unfamiliar noise, and you become hyper-sensitised; you can hear every sound, and every fibre of your being is alert and ready for action. This is what happens spiritually, when we hear about the End of Time.
It was funny this morning at Mass: I preached the same sermon, and at the very moment I mentioned the Last Judgment, all the doors in the chapel slammed shut simultaneously; there was a little nervous frisson around the congregation; and for a split second I thought, “Wow, it’s really happening!” But then I remembered the fuse board has been playing up, and the magnetic door locks have been tripping.
Let’s call this Advent feeling a sense of “holy trepidation”. Jesus himself says, “Watch yourselves, or your hearts will be coarsened by debauchery and drunkenness and the cares of life”. He says, “Stay awake, praying at all times for the strength to survive all that is going to happen”. And St Paul writes, “May the Lord so confirm your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless in the sight of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus Christ comes with all his saints”.
This isn’t a complicated piece of theology. We are going to meet the Lord. Are we ready? That’s it. I am going to give him an account of all that I have done with my life, and all that I have done to others: Am I proud of how I am living? Is it worthy of Christ? And if it is not: Why am I kidding myself? Why pretend it doesn’t matter? I’m a Christian: Why would I want to hide anything from Christ? Advent forces us to ask these questions, which can make us feel uncomfortable; but it also gives us time. Instead of catching us like a trap (these are Jesus’s words not mine), it gives us time to prepare. We can ask the Lord to help us let go of the things that are unworthy of him.
I learnt a new acronym yesterday. I’m sure you hipster people have been using it for years but in my middle-aged-ness I have only just discovered it: FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out. This can be a negative motivation, that gets us doing all sorts of crazy things that we don’t really want to do, or that we absolutely shouldn’t be doing. But it can also be a positive incentive. We need a bit of FOMO, a healthy fear of missing out, of missing out on the Banquet of Heaven and the Glory of All the Saints. And if we had this goal before us, like the painting on the western wall of the medieval churches, it would help us let go of some of the useless things in our lives and focus a bit more on what really matters.
So let’s hold these two themes in mind this Advent, in a constructive tension. On the one hand, to feel a “holy trepidation” at the thought of meeting the Lord, and to live each moment with that knowledge in mind, to live a life worthy of the Lord. On the other hand, to be swept up in the hope and joy of this season, without a single anxiety, because the Lord is coming. Notice the grammar: it’s a present participle; it’s not just that the Lord will come in some uncertain future; it’s that he is coming; he is on his way; he is already keeping his promises; that he is with us now, to the eyes of faith; and on that Great Day at the End of Time, he will be with us in Glory.
[29 November 2015, 1st Sunday of Advent, Year C, Newman House Catholic Chaplaincy]