Gripped by Fear
Good Friday | Fr David Goodill says Christ’s suffering and crucifixion transforms our fear of death, and shines with hope in the darkness.
Christ crucified is the one thing we have to preach, yet this one thing encompasses all. Fr. Matthew (Matty) Rigney O.P. once told me how as a young priest he was terrified to preach his first sermon. One of the older priests in his community helped him to overcome his fears; yes, preaching is terrifying, no one wants to tell people they have to be crucified with Christ. This is what we preach. Only by sharing in Christ’s death can we come to the glory of his resurrection.
For many people this makes Christianity an offensive religion, and the cross remains a stumbling block to belief. Others prefer a Christianity without this offensive element; a general humanism in which God rewards those who do good, but does not demand too much from us. This form of Christianity not only reduces the Gospel to a vague moral code, it also fails to address the reality of death and suffering. Whether or not we believe in God, whether or not we find the Gospel offensive, we will suffer and die. As a spiritual director once told me, you can either suffer with Christ or without him.
Why suffering exists and how we are to come to terms with death are questions human beings have asked throughout the ages. Christians continue to ponder these questions in the light of Scripture. The book of Job is the most profound reflection ever written on the sufferings of the innocent. In our First Reading today Isaiah reveals the reason why Jesus Christ, the innocent one, will suffer. It is for our sake that Christ is disfigured, made hideous in our sight, “he was pierced for our faults, crushed for our sins.”
Christians, like all other people, will suffer and die. Yet we will not do so alone, for the suffering Christ is with us. All our suffering, all our pain, the fear we have of dying, are carried by Christ as he suffers and dies for us upon the cross. The cross, offensive to many, is the tree of life through which Christ brings us healing and new life. We can only overcome our fear of death and find healing for our pain if we are united with Christ on the cross. When Jesus challenges us to pick up our cross and follow him he is not imposing suffering and death on us. We all have our crosses to bear in life. Rather, he is inviting us to unite our sufferings with his, so that he can carry our sufferings on his cross, “ours were the sufferings he bore, ours the sorrows he carried.”
By picking up our cross and uniting ourselves to the crucified one we learn to live in hope. Without this hope we will be prisoners to death. St Thomas Aquinas associates the gift of fear with hope. Without hope and the gift of fear we are driven by our fear of death. The human passion of fear is a good thing when it moves us to do what is good. A child who has little fear risks serious injury. It is when fear becomes inordinate that it takes hold of us with its vice like grip, and since fear of death is our greatest fear it has the strongest hold on us. Through the cross Christ has overcome death, and the water and blood that stream from his side are the source of our new life.
This does not mean that we are no longer afraid of suffering and death. Lack of fear is not a good thing. Rather, fear of death no longer controls us; we are free to enter into the fullness of our redeemed humanity through Jesus Christ. The gift of fear heals us by enabling us to overcoming the inordinate fear we have of death. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit through which we come to fear God as our loving Father. St. Thomas describes this gift as our growth in love and respect for our Heavenly Father, so that the fear we have of the world is transformed into the reverence we have for a parent. The child who wakes at night, gripped by terror of the dark, needs the loving presence of the parent to overcome her fear. We are all like that child, and it is only through the cross of Christ, the light in the darkness of this world, that we will be raised from death to life.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of the Cross venerated on Good Friday in Blackfriars, Oxford.