“When love has entirely cast out fear, and fear has been transformed into love, then the unity brought us by our savior will be fully realized, for all [people] will be united with one another through their union with the one supreme Good.”
St. Gregory of Nyssa,
from a homily on The Song of Songs
In a wide-ranging conversation with Bill Moyers early last year, writer Marilynne Robinson spoke about fear in American life. With eloquence and insight (and no little exasperation), she noted how we have managed to convince ourselves—or, rather, how we have been persuaded by powerful interest groups—that fear is really courage.
We fashion, she said, “little narratives” that make each of us the hero of an imagined drama and anyone else a potential threat. And all the ways in which we prepare (expect? secretly hope?) for our fear-driven stories to unfold constitute something of an addiction, a cultural obsession, a collective pathology.
Robinson’s insights are as timely as ever these many months later. Why is America’s culture of fear taken as a matter of course?
During these fifty days of Easter, the appointed lectionary texts have been tracking other narratives. The weekly first readings from the book of Acts have recounted the story of the nascent Jesus movement. The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) and the Lectionary for Mass (LM) have differed each week in their chosen texts but all of them have given us glimpses of conditions on the ground—in Palestine, in the seaports of the Mediterranean, on European soil—as those first followers preached and lived the story of the meeting of heaven and earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
The second reading each week has been from the book of Revelation. If the Acts of the Apostles is history of a sort, then the Apocalypse of John is something like a liturgical text. Its vision of heavenly worship was meant to encourage a persecuted people and to paint vivid, startling pictures of the meeting of heaven and earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
One crucial link between the appointed Easter readings from Acts and those from Revelation is the work of the Holy Spirit. The book of Acts begins with a promise and a prayer meeting—Jesus ascends and the Spirit descends, with tongues of fire and disciples mistaken for drunks. The movement of the church from Jerusalem to the outposts of Empire is directed not by savvy disciple-strategists intent on enlarging their territory but by the blow-where-it-will Spirit working in and through (and sometimes apart from) an improbable lot, the ekklesia of God.
Acts records the mission of God advancing through surprise encounters, spirited debates, weird dreams, suspect spokespersons, and unlikely conversions.
In the RCL reading for this Sunday, Lydia, a successful textile business owner, shows up in response to a vision Paul experiences in the night. He changes his itinerary, arrives in Philippi, and receives the hospitality of this Gentile woman who, with her whole family, becomes a follower of the Way. In the Acts reading for mass, we hear of the deftness with which the apostles handle the contentious issue of circumcision. In both stories the Holy Spirit works through these first followers to extend a gracious welcome and widen the circle of believers.
In the Revelation text, we have a vision of what the Spirit’s work completes: “the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.” (Rev 21:10). What Jesus bore witness to in his earthly life and death—the glory of the Father—is presented as an image, an icon of the eternal celestial worship, the beatific vision which is the telos of all creation: “they will see his face.” (Rev 22:4).
Alongside the sweeping narrative of Acts and the grand liturgical drama of Revelation is the gospel reading from St. John, which is quiet and intimate by comparison. It’s just Jesus and the disciples. It’s an extended scene of Jesus’ extended goodbye—the so-called “farewell discourse”—to his heartsick, bewildered disciples. We know they are feeling this way because he has said twice in the span of a few verses “do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.”
For all the other words of consolation Jesus speaks to his bereft friends, perhaps this invitation to not be afraid is the word we most need to hear in these bewildering times. And yet how do we take it in? How do we let it be so? Its imperative tone can leave us feeling like failures for our inability to do what is commanded.
But once again it is the Spirit that does the work. We receive the gift of having our fears transformed, and learning to distinguish real fears from manufactured ones. “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. (Jn 14:26-27).
This peace—the shalom of God—is not the peace promised by fear-mongering politicians. Rather, Jesus assures his disciples and us that his Spirit, working in and through the Church (and sometimes apart from it) will show us the fullness of life we were created for. We get a taste of this quite literally when we share the Eucharist, praying, with St. Gregory of Nyssa, that “we will be united with one another through [our] union with the one supreme Good.”
When love has entirely cast out fear, and fear has been transformed into love, then may we glimpse together in our life as Jesus’ body, in ways sweeping and grand and in ways quiet and intimate, the beautiful meeting of heaven and earth.