Perfect love, the apostle John writes, casts out fear. So when God’s angel broke the good news of the Savior’s birth to the cowering shepherds of Bethlehem, “Fear not!” was more than an instruction for them to get up off the ground and stop shielding their frightened faces. It was a declaration of war on fear. The “glad tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people” meant that fear’s grip on human hearts was going to have to give way to the far greater power of love.
People have derived comfort from these words for two thousand years, but millions of us are still afraid. What’s more, we are scared to admit our fears, particularly our biggest fear of all — death.
The fear of death overshadows all our lives. We live longer than our grandparents; we are better fed; we lose fewer babies. Vaccines protect us from once-feared epidemics; hi-tech hospitals save tiny preemies and patients in need of a new kidney or heart. But we are still mortal. And even if we have been successful in warding off plagues that decimated earlier generations, we have no lack of our own, from addiction, suicide, abortion, and divorce to racism, poverty, violence, and militarism. We live, as Pope John Paul II has said, in a culture of death.
It is also a culture of fear. Fearing old age, we hide our elderly in nursing homes. Fearing crime, we protect ourselves with guns and locked doors. Fearing people who don’t look like us or earn as much, we move into segregated or “gated” neighborhoods. Fearing other nations, we impose sanctions and drop bombs. We are even afraid of our own offspring, turning our schools into virtual prisons, and our prisons into holding pens and morgues. Add to all these anxieties several more that are driving millions to distraction: terrorism, bio-warfare, and planes falling out of the sky.
I live in New York, and after September 11, 2001, the words “fear not” seemed out of place, even cruel. Surely we had every reason to be afraid. But somehow I couldn’t get those words out of my head, especially when I thought of my friend Father Mychal Judge, a Franciscan priest and fire department chaplain — and the first registered victim at Ground Zero, the site of the former Twin Towers. The details of his death are unclear: some say he was fatally wounded as he administered last rites to a dying firefighter; others remember him standing alone in silent prayer. Whatever happened, his lifeless body was discovered in the lobby and carried to a nearby church shortly before Tower One collapsed.
Father Mike had poured his heart into his chaplaincy work for the Fire Department of New York and was an outspoken advocate for people dying of AIDS; he was also known throughout the city for his love of the downtrodden. With a pocketful of dollar bills “rescued” from friends who could afford to give them away, he always had something to give a needy person on the street. In 1999, Father Mike and I traveled through Northern Ireland with a mutual friend, NYPD Detective Steven McDonald, promoting dialogue and reconciliation. We made a second trip to Ireland in 2000, and at the time of his death, we were in the final stages of planning a similar one to Israel and the West Bank.
When I thought of Father Mike, it occurred to me that here was a man who had arrived at Ground Zero long before that fateful September morning. He had loved life with his whole being, but he had also proved himself ready many times before to “lay down his life for his friends” — like the time he climbed a ladder to the window of a second-floor apartment, and talked a frenzied gunman into surrendering to police. It was easy for me to imagine Father Mike spending his last moments on Earth encouraging another person by turning him toward God, away from fear. He had been doing that all his life. When I think of Father Mike, I feel certain that God was there in lower Manhattan on 9/11, with every soul, in the midst of that sheer terror and raw evil. This gives me comfort.
If the thought of finding God in such horrendous circumstances seems strange, perhaps it is because we are out of practice looking for him. In good time it is easy for us to call God “Father” and acknowledge him as the source of our blessings. But when tragedy strikes we too often (to borrow from George MacDonald) “look upon God as our last and feeblest resort. We go to him because we have nowhere else to go.” We forget that God is right there, waiting for us to turn to him, no matter how dire our situation. And we forget the reassuring words of his messengers: “Fear not.” If we really trusted in God, these words would never seem empty. Instead, they would remind us that God always seeks to draw close to us — even, as the Psalmist writes, in the depths of hell. And they might also remind us that (to quote MacDonald again) once we do turn to God we will find that the storms of life have “driven us not upon the rocks but unto our desired haven.”
Many people may feel God wasn’t there on September 11. They see the world as an increasingly frightening place. Their faith has been shaken. I know how they feel. I have eight children and some two dozen grandchildren, and I know what it is like to ponder the future and be scared. I have also stood at the bedside of dying friends and relatives — and have fought alongside them — as they faced death. I have held their hands when fear filled their eyes, and have witnessed the remarkable peace that radiates from those who have not only battled their fears, but found strength to ask God to intervene on their behalf.
Without exception, these were ordinary men and women who at some point in their life had decided to spend their energies reaching out to people around them, rather than focusing on themselves. Through this, they received a special gift: the ability to hear the angel’s words, “Fear not!” Such a gift can only be given to a surrendered heart, one that knows itself to be held in the palm of God’s hand.
My grandfather, writer Eberhard Arnold, was one such person. He grasped intuitively that our flesh, blood, and bones are not, in the truest and deepest sense, our real selves, but that the real seat of our being, the soul, passes from mortality into immortality, and from time into timelessness. My grandfather spoke of the human soul’s perpetual longing for God, and referred to death as the moment we are “called into eternity” and united with God.
It is natural, even for us who call ourselves believers, to feel the gulf between our present state and eternal unity with God. But then we should bear in mind that the angel’s “glad tidings,” wonderful as they are, do not spell out the whole story. Christ’s life began in a manger, but its pivotal point was his crucifixion, and its completion was Easter, when he rose from the dead.
Many years of counseling people through grief and loss have made me certain that Christ’s death and resurrection hold the deepest answer to all our fears. We all have bad days; and plenty of us know what depression is. There are very few people who have not, at one time or another, experienced deep anguish — and growing numbers have faced the terror of violence. In our lives we may be tested in ways we cannot even imagine. Yet we can be certain Christ has shared our torment, and worse. He sweated drops of blood and was totally forsaken. He died, and descended into hell. But by overcoming death he took away all our reasons for fear, forever.
Of course, it does no good to recognize this in a merely intellectual way. Knowing that Christ loves us may not save us from fear, nor will it save us from death. And so it comes down to this: the only way to truly overcome our fear of death is to live life in such a way that its meaning cannot be taken away by death.
This sounds grandiose, but it is really very simple. It means fighting the impulse to live for ourselves, instead of for others. It means choosing generosity over greed. It also means living humbly, rather than seeking influence and power. Finally, it means being ready to die again and again — to ourselves, and to every self-serving opinion or agenda.
In Dickens’s Christmas Carol, the bitter old accountant Scrooge provides a memorable illustration. Tight-fisted and grasping, he goes through life dragging a chain that he himself has forged, link by link, with each miserly deed. Having closed himself to human kindness, he lives in a universe so calculating and cold that no one escapes his suspicion. Before long he begins to despise himself and look for a way out of his misery. But he cannot find one. He is trapped — trapped in the prison of self. Worse, he is haunted by dreams of death, and dreads its approach.
Then he changes. Loosened by those same dreams, the scales fall from his eyes, and he sees a way out: “The time before him was his own, to make amends in!” No longer consumed with his own needs, he is free to love, and vows to dispel “the shadows of the things that would have been.” And as he runs from one old acquaintance to the next, he rediscovers the world around him with the unselfconscious happiness of a child.
Such happiness can be ours, too, if we live for love. By “love” I am not speaking simply of the emotion, nor of some grand, abstract ideal, but of the life-changing power Jesus peaks of when he says: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me (Matthew 25:35-36).
Love is a tangible reality. Sometimes it is born of passion or devotion; sometimes it demands hard work and sacrifice. Its source is unimportant. But when we live for love, we will be able to meet any challenge that comes our way — even the final one, of death.
As my great-aunt Else lay dying of tuberculosis, a friend asked her if she had one last wish. She replied, “Only to love more.” If we live our lives in love, we will know peace now, and at the hour of death. And we will not be afraid.