Fear and Trembling

So the first reaction to the news of the resurrection is fear. The gospel accounts differ in lots of ways in how they describe those early experiences but fear is common to them all. Partly it’s confusion that causes the fear. Things aren’t adding up as the tomb is found empty. The very worst is assumed. When the various people go to the tomb, finally able to quit hiding and needing to pay some respect to their leader they have betrayed and abandoned, they don’t find his body and there is evidence of foul play. The large rock sealing the tomb has been moved. The burial garments are on the ground. But the body of Jesus is not there. The immediate conclusion is that someone has stolen the body. Fear seems pretty appropriate in that setting.

Even after Jesus appears to the apostles and others, fear is the common reaction.  The risen Lord has to soothe fears. He talks about the peace that is available to them which suggests peace is not what they have when they first see him risen. He talks about forgiveness, especially with Peter who made such a big deal about loyalty but three times denied allegiance publically. Peace and forgiveness develop over time but the first time everyone sees the risen Lord they are afraid. They don’t jump up and greet the risen Christ with joy and happiness; they are scared. Again, that seems pretty appropriate. Imagine gathering in secret behind locked doors, already freaked out by guilt and wondering when the authorities might come busting in to arrest you, and then seeing this fellow Jesus who had been brutally killed now standing in front of you. How could you not be afraid?

Tell me about a time when you’ve been scared, I asked the students at Holy Cross Episcopal School the day after Easter. One student said she had been in a car accident lately. Another said his grandmother was in the hospital. Someone mentioned they had recently gone to the doctor and had to get a shot. A teacher shared that it was her first day back from maternity leave and it was scary leaving her new baby.

Fears are such a common part of life. Partly fear is instinct. When something startles us, the fight/flight decision process begins even before we think about it. Our first reaction is usually to run and that protects us from many things. Fear is that abrupt realization that we are out of control and then our brains start firing out signals in an attempt to gain some control.

Fear is like every emotion in that, no matter how hard we try not to feel it, it’s just there. Probably a better strategy with fear than trying to deny its existence is to accept our fears when they arise and pay attention to them. Oftentimes our reaction to fear causes us more harm than the fear itself ever would. The fight/flight instinct seems deeply imbedded in us. But then we have to deal with the fleeing or fighting we have engaged in. After running away, we usually have to come back and engage. After fighting what threatens us, we usually have to come to some acceptance.

When you are scared, how long does it usually last?, I asked those same students. The first response was, Two minutes. Those immediate fears which explode in us or burst upon us are pretty temporary. They do calm down. Maybe it’s longer than two minutes but they don’t last forever. They pass and something else takes their place. Peace evolves. But then, of course, something else will pop up and scare us again.

Fear certainly is part of our survival instinct. It wakes us up and alerts us to things which could destroy us. Fear can call us into action. Fear, in critical times, seems appropriate and healthy. And, if we’re paying attention, we come to see that just as there are many threatening situations, there are protective devices also built into life. Fear helps us survive and then we learn that life is more often gentle and kind rather than dangerous and dastardly.

As natural and helpful as fear can be, it can also become a way of living. We can develop an attitude of assuming that around every corner something is lurking to destroy us. The fact that fear is part of our instinct can actually help reassure us that, when it is really time to be scared we’ll be scared and then find protection. We can, however, get so scared of being scared that it becomes a chronic condition.

That’s where the resurrection applies so well. The risen Christ doesn’t just show up to put out the fires in our lives. The risen Christ abides with us to give us peace. Peace includes being scared from time to time but it also includes a sense that somehow all things will be made well. The peace of Christ leads us to trust that, while we cannot control everything in life, nothing will be beyond God’s healing touch.

Fear is inevitable. But it can lead to a deeper faith.


Yours faithfully,

Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.