There is still more to say regarding the theme of fear and faith, but I wanted to conclude the previous reflection at the point that we did: at the center. Let us pick up again now and follow the trail in a different direction. Jesus knew and lived this disposition of radical trust in God and total dependency upon him from the wellspring of his own identity as the eternal Son of the Father. But he also knew it in the very concrete experiences of his humanity, which grew up and matured in the orbit of the intimacy of his parents, Mary and Joseph. The Holy Family knew, viscerally and experientially, in other words, the anxieties and fears of human existence. Matthew explicitly says that Joseph was “afraid” when he saw that Archelaus reigned in place of his father. Indeed, he probably even struggled with fear (as we all do), with that tug of insecurity that tempts the human heart to grasp for control in order to safeguard security for oneself. But the Gospels make it clear that, in the midst of everything, in all the messiness of human experience—from which Joseph and Mary were not spared, though the latter bore it in a nature free from all the effects of sin—they chose to walk in faith. And faith, as we have seen, is the only true liberation from fear, the exodus out of the narrowness of the need for self-centered control through the entrustment of oneself to a greater Love, to God.
The Holy Family walked a path of the “littlest ones,” without any earthly securities, without wealth or power or prestige or any other material or earthly affluence and control. They were humble people in a humble nation, one of many countries under occupation by the military and cultural superpower of Rome; they were a simple laborer, a housewife, and her son, in a religion that, despite being the cult of the chosen people of God, was so small, so humble, that it passed unnoticed by the world. Indeed, those who tried to turn the religion of poverty into the religion of control, into the religion of self-righteousness and sparklingly immaculate external practice, were those who received the sternest condemnations from the mouth of Jesus Christ.
So it is even to this day. Pharisaism continually crops up throughout history under different guises, and one of the prime faces it shows today is the painful trend of radical traditionalism that is trying so hard to present itself as authentic Catholicism. And in the process it is ravaging so many simple and generous hearts who do not know any better, preying upon their fears, insecurities, and desires for external guidelines of how to be in the right with God and secure in his love. This is something that concerns all of us, whether it affects us directly or not, since such trends of rigid externalism and pharisaistic righteousness threaten actual schism within the single Body of the Church; but in fact, sometimes schism is actually healthier than acting like the wounded member does not exist, since then its infection can spread unnoticed into the rest of the Body, hurting even more children of God. Thus the counter-reformation after the Protestant movement was so important: part of the healing of the Church, the excision of falsehoods that found no place in the sanctuary of the Church’s faith as entrusted to her by Christ, and handed on and protected within the succession from the apostles. The same is true of the Second Vatican Council: it laid bare an illness within the Church, which was narrowing her faith and suffocating her love, closing her into a self-righteous defensiveness and limiting the breadth of her evangelical dynamism both in prayer and in missionary effort. Of course, another illness was also laid bare: the liberalism that refuses to bow in humility before the authority given by Christ to his apostles and their successors, particularly the successor of Saint Peter, the pope, and the relativistic subjectivism that rejects the heritage of the faith and doctrine and practice of the Church as outdated. In the process, this liberalism is not enlightened, lifted up, or renewed by Christ, but rather is corrupted and twisted by the world and its standards, placing more importance on current fads and wishes that spring from the wounds of sin rather than on the Word of God that alone heals and sets free: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free. … Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not continue in the house forever; the son continues forever. So if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed” (Jn 8:32, 34-36). We will return to this beautiful text in a moment, as it directly relates to our theme.
Saint John has strong words concerning the tendency to conform to the world, whatever its particular passions may be in a given era (and in truth they are always the same, under different guises and to different degrees), just as Jesus (and Paul) had strong words against the rigidity of pharisaism:
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides for ever. (1 Jn 2:15-17)
He who does the will of God abides forever. This is precisely the truth that we explored in its inmost meaning in the last reflection. And Jesus’ words as quoted above relate directly to it: whoever commits sin is a slave to sin, and only the Son can set us free. This Son alone can bestow upon us again, in himself, our birthright as sons and daughter of the Father, heirs of the kingdom destined for home in the house of heaven, in the bosom of the Trinity. The promise of sin is a seduction; it seduces us with liberty and autonomy, with complete freedom, and yet it leads only to slavery. It leads to the loss of self in the bondage of disordered passions, in the permeation of our life by fear which we cannot escape, in the weakening of our will to choose goodness, beauty, and truth, and in the blinding of the eyes of our hearts until we come to find ourselves stumbling in the darkness unsure of which way to go. To lessen the message of the Gospel to make it more “palatable,” therefore, is not to do our world a favor, but rather more like witholding water from a man dying of thirst. So too, to present Christianity as a religion burdened by immeasurable rules, permeated by the legalistic tradition that has afflicted Catholicism for far too long (since Aquinas gave way to Ockam in the thirteen century), is to forget the newness of the Gospel and its true, liberating beauty. For Christ came into this world to make us sons and daughters, to welcome us into the playground of the Father, where the rules of the house exist only to facilitate and liberate our capacity to live the life of holiness, happiness, and love to the utmost, and to drink deep of the joy that it gives.
Yes, the Son of God came among us, entering into our world, to play right in our midst, to love right in our midst, and thus to teach us how to love. The path is arduous, often times painful, and calls forth the complete and total gift of our entire being: a living sacrifice of every moment of our existence surrendered into the embrace of Love by love, and flowing from Love with love, a sweet and fragrant aroma that manifests simultaneously the beauty of the Trinity and the authentic beauty of humanity redeemed. (See Rom 12:1 and Eph 5:1-2.) But how can a heart that loves desire anything else but total gift: to welcome the gift of the divine Lover totally and completely into oneself, and to give oneself totally back into his welcoming embrace? Here sacrifice reveals its true meaning: it is not pain, it is not destruction, it is not even primarily renunciation or effort or activity; it is above all simply the manifestation of love responding to Love, permeating all of life and sweeping it up into the circulation of mutual self-giving between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In fact, the primal act of love, of sacrifice, of gift, is not to give myself, but rather to welcome the gift of the One who comes to me and loves me first. And even my own surrender is not an act that I myself can will or accomplish on my own. That would be like trying to sleep by “willing it.” Rather, surrender is the fruit of God’s touch harnessing my being and relaxing me in childlike trust, as fear dissolves and confidence takes its place, confidence born of absolute certainty in the infinite and eternal Love of God. Yes, here, as grace received permeated all the energies of my being, my own freedom is not destroyed but rather elicited, set free, and harnessed in cooperation with the amazing freedom of God, this freedom which is identical with eternal Truth and Love. In my smallest daily actions, in my humblest of prayers and desires, in my rest and repose, and ultimately in my very death, by which God leads me back to the total dependence of childlike trust and the complete surrender of spousal love, he draws me back into the heart of his own embrace. And there I share with him, already in this life and perfectly for all eternity, the very life of love that is forever his in the joy of consummated intimacy between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.