“Do not be alarmed.” Usually the first words we hear in the Easter liturgy are, “Christ is risen! Alleluia!” – welcome words of exuberance after six long weeks of Lent, the deepening darkness of Holy Week, and the utter emptiness of Holy Saturday. But those words don’t appear in the first resurrection experience (Mark 16:1-8). The first words spoken to anyone at the empty tomb are, “Do not be alarmed,” or in other versions, “Do not be afraid.”
“Do not be alarmed.” But many of us are alarmed at what’s happening today. We’re alarmed at what COVID-19 has done to us and still threatens to do. We’re alarmed at the prospect of unemployment and financial insecurity; alarmed at threats to our physical and emotional security; alarmed that as the pandemic eases and a new pastor is called, we might not return to the normal we knew and that our future will be unrecognizably different.
There are many things that might alarm us. But I’m not sure that’s what the women felt. I think they felt something deeper. I think they felt the kind of alarm that makes people prisoners of the past, unable to live into the future they will have a hand in creating. The past we’d like to keep hidden, the mistakes we’d like to bury, the graves where experience has tried to bury us, the “normal” we once knew and that holds us in its grip – these things don’t limit us; our fear does. So the message comes: Don’t be alarmed. Don’t let fear run your life.
So how do we live in the resurrected lives without fear? There’s a psalm I use in prayer before going to bed every day, Psalm 4, that offers a simple 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, adapted from the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, 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 is The Cloud of Unknowing, written in the fourteenth century by an anonymous English priest. 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, not your emotions but the deep, inner core of your being. Your heart will tell you the way through that fear. “The ladder that leads to the kingdom of heaven,” Isaac the Syrian wrote, “is hidden in your heart. Plunge deeply within yourself, away from sin, and there you will find steps by which to ascend.” Keep your mouth shut and let your heart do the talking.
Second, offer the appointed sacrifices. Your body needs the nourishment of a well-balanced diet every day in order to stay healthy and strong. So does your soul; it needs a well-balanced spiritual diet every day. So in the face of whatever might alarm you, continue your routine spiritual disciplines, the practices that nurture your relationship with God, even when the routine seems not to be working. Offer the appointed sacrifices, keep working on your disciplines, and let God work on you.
Finally, put your trust in God. The author of Lamentations wrote, “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, 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 alarmed as we confront a world we’ve never known before, but don’t be afraid, don’t despair. Be quiet and listen to your heart, keep up the disciplines of your faith, and put your trust in God. The lively presence of God is not constrained by anything that might alarm you – past, present, or future. Christ is risen, indeed.