“Do not be afraid.” Usually the first words we hear in the Easter liturgy are, “Christ is risen! Alleluia!” – words of exuberance, bursting forth after six long weeks of Lent, the deepening darkness and foreboding of Holy Week, and the utter emptiness of Holy Saturday. But those words are not in the first resurrection experience (Matt. 28:1-10). The first Easter was one of fear, terror, and the first words spoken by the risen Christ in Matthew’s gospel are, “Do not be afraid.”
“Do not be afraid.” But many of us are afraid. We’re afraid of COVID-19; afraid of unemployment and financial insecurity; afraid of losing the most basic things we need to be human, our physical and emotional security; afraid that our future will be unrecognizably different. Those are fearful possibilities, and if fear of them makes us respect them enough to be prudent and cautious, then we do well to fear them.
There are many other things we might fear, and rightly so. But I’m not sure it’s the kind of fear the women felt. I think they felt the kind that scares the life out of them, the kind that makes their lives shrink and keeps them that way. I think the risen Christ was talking about the kind of fear that makes people prisoners of the past, unable to live into the future they will have a hand in creating. Our past, our mistakes, the graves where experience has tried to bury us, these things don’t limit us; our fear does. Do not be afraid. Don’t let fear run your life.
So how do we not let fear run our life? How do we live resurrected lives without fear? There’s a psalm I use in prayer before going to bed every day, Psalm 4, that offers a simple, three-step prescription for how to live without fear. “Tremble, but do not despair. Keep your mouth shut and let your heart do the talking, offer the appointed sacrifices, put your trust in God” (Ps. 4:4-5 from ICEL, The Message, and The Book of Common Prayer).
First, keep your mouth shut and let your heart do the talking. Your heart will tell you what you need to hear. One of the most influential books on prayer and the spiritual life was written in the fourteenth century by an anonymous English priest; it’s called The Cloud of Unknowing. The author describes a dark cloud between us and God, which our mind and understanding can never penetrate. Only our hearts can penetrate that cloud and reach God with “darts of longing love.”
It’s on our hearts that God has written the law of life, the principles by which to live in full, fruitful relationship with God (Jer. 31:33). Whenever you’re overcome by deep fear, listen to your heart. Your heart will tell you the way through that fear. “The ladder that leads to the kingdom of heaven,” St. Isaac the Syrian wrote, “is hidden in your heart.” Keep your mouth shut and let your heart do the talking.
Second, offer the appointed sacrifices. Continue with your routine spiritual disciplines, the practices that nurture your relationship with God, even when the routine seems not to be working. Keep working on your disciplines, and let God work on you. Long after he became a priest, while he was on a ship that seemed about to sink in a violent storm, a fearful John Wesley observed the calm faith of a group of Moravians praying on deck. How could he have such faith in the midst of the storm? he wondered.
And someone told him, “Preach faith until you have it, then preach faith because you have it.” Do what you know to do, and God will work deep in your heart, unseen and unfelt. Offer the appointed sacrifices. Keep up your disciplines faithfully. They will carry you through any storm.
Finally, put your trust in God. The writer of Lamentations promised, “The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord” (Lam. 3:25-26). This may be the most difficult step of the three, but I’ve discovered that even in the waiting, or especially in the waiting, there is grace, and deep calm, and a peace that surpasses all understanding. So with the psalmist, we say, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope” (Ps. 130:5).
We may be surrounded by fear, but do not be afraid. Tremble, but don’t despair. Keep your mouth shut and listen to your heart, keep up the disciplines of faith, and put your trust in God. Christ is risen, indeed.