Some things have been seared into my memory. One of my earliest and most vivid memories is of a rosebush growing on the corner of Converse Street and Vermont Avenue in Springfield Massachusetts. The blooms on its branches that flowed over onto the sidewalk attracted many fat, buzzing, terrifying bees. Terrifying, at least, for me, the four-year-old boy who was petrified to pass by that bush with its threatening, stinging insects. There was a pool in a public park in Greenfield Massachusetts in 1955 whose deep end was painted a brilliant blue. I know, because I was a nine-year-old boy who almost drowned at the bottom of that pool.
There is an iron bridge in a town in Pennsylvania with railroad tracks and a river running below it that can make you nauseous. I know, because as I crossed it one day in 1986, my stomach was churning and I was full of fear that my career as a pastor was on the point of disintegrating. And, there is a claustrophobic doctor’s examining room in Boston Massachusetts where the walls are painted a mustard yellow and there is nothing anywhere in that tiny space to cheer or comfort you. I won’t easily forget that room, because there, I received a diagnosis I was afraid to hear.
I can recall those times and places in vivid detail because in each instance I was deeply afraid. Fear insures that you never forget. It triggers the reptilian section of our brains to take over and put us in a state of high alert. And, before it has passed, the fear-filled memory is put in cold storage in another part of the brain. That’s why some of our most vivid memories are of being afraid. When we’re scared out of our wits, the frightening memories are seared into our brains.
Matthew’s account of what happened among the tombs at dawn on the first Easter is a graphic re-telling of a collective memory that’s driven by fear. Fear is featured in this story; two kinds in fact: the anxious fear of the guards and the joy-filled fear of the women. In describing the terror of the guards, Matthew presents a vivid image of what crippling, corrupting dread is like. Some of the sentinels were bought off by their superiors; they were forced to tell lies in order to save their skins. The guards in their anxiety took the money and ran, hoping to stay out of trouble. Their dread and consternation reduced them to acting like venal, calculating, self-protecting scoundrels, overwhelmed by primitive fear.
I too have been in that dreadfully uncomfortable place dominated by fear and know it’s no way to live. Happily, there is another way of coping, an alternative to anxious fear that’s also highlighted in Matthew’s story as he tells of the transforming fear of the two Mary’s. At first, they were as full of anxious fear as were the soldiers guarding the grave. Who wouldn’t be frightened at the lightning’s strike, the quaking earth, the strange messenger and the disturbed tomb? But the imposing messenger of God addressed the women’s terror directly, telling them the stupendous news that their beloved Lord had conquered death and was going before them.
The women, breathless with awe, left the tomb with a transformed fear, a fear that coexists with joy. The Gospel emphasizes that the women went away “with fear and great joy.” This joy-filled fear is what the bible has always called the ‘fear of the Lord.’ It’s the complete opposite of an anxious fear that’s so full of self-concern and consuming worry that there’s no room for joy. By contrast, fearing God in the sense of being in awe of God’s power can be accompanied by deep joy, Matthew affirms.
That’s the kind of fear I need for my anxious days — a fear that simply helps me to remember that God is in charge of life. A fear like that can set me free from ultimately having to be afraid for myself. Oh, I know that I’ll still be anxious and fearful; it’s part of my chemical makeup and the hard-wiring of my brain. But I see how the women on that first Easter were able to balance their anxious inclinations with the reassuring fear and awe of God. When I allow God to be God, I can let go of a life of anxious self-assertion and self-protection. I can trust and be joyful.
The story offers something more. It suggests that as I move from anxious fear to a fear full of awe and joy, I’m not only freed from something, I’m freed for something. Matthew emphasizes that the two Mary’s were given a job to do. They were called to be the first to announce the joyous message that Jesus lives, that he is going ahead of them and that they will see Him again. And they immediately set out to do it. With the fear of God and with joy in their hearts they took the message and ran. What a contrast — the Roman guards took the money and ran; the two Mary’s took the message and ran, ran toward a transformed life of surpassing joy.
And so with Mary and Mary Magdalene as my mentors in the art of living with fear, I pray:
O Risen Lord, help me to leave my anxious fears at your empty tomb. Fill me with awe at your victory over death, that I too might run to share this good news and live a fearless life of fearsome joy!
Edward R. Dufresne © 2013