Today, while saying midday prayer in the Divine Office, this verse caught my attention:
Jesus was seized with fear and distress (Mark 14:33)
It was not one of the antiphons, it wasn’t part of the psalms, or even part of the reading. It was one of the little “aside” verses that they put at the beginning of some of the psalms, as kind of a guide to meditation, or a suggestion. I confess I usually don’t pay too much attention to them. This one, however, seemed to smack me upside the head with the image of Jesus being seized with fear and distress.
I did not look up the context, as I already knew where it came from. This was the garden of Gethsemane. I am used to the translation, “He began to be saddened and exceedingly troubled.” The unfamiliar translation is a good thing. It causes words familiar to me from literally hundreds of hearings and readings to reach me in new ways, and to say new things.
What hit me now was an image. I cannot describe it visually. It was more of a startled realization, “Jesus? Afraid?!” It was a feeling of utter shock and dismay. I know what fear is. I have faced fear in many different shapes and forms, and in some ways I have been afraid all my life. It comes of having an overactive imagination, and a conscience. Fear is inescapable. I have learned that fear is less important than what I do with it, but I assume that I feel fear because I am imperfect. When I am perfect I will no longer feel fear. After all, “Perfect love casts out all fear.”
But here is Jesus, my hero, (I almost said, “my idol” except that that is the one thing He could not be) afraid. HE! The God/Man. The conqueror of death and sin! He cannot be afraid. I have thought of Him being saddened, in pain, in agony, but never afraid. Pain is one thing. Even the most intense pain ever is not half as bad as the fear of that pain. I don’t know why I never thought of Jesus being afraid. I guess I assumed that because He knew how it was going to turn out, He already knew what He had to do, and knew that He would endure, knew that He would rise, fear would be out of the question. It is uncertainty, the weakness of the flesh that lacks trust and confidence that shrinks back in fear. That is why fear is so toxic, and so much worse than pain. Any amount of pain can be endured so long as you have hope. Fear, however, crushes the spirit because it attacks hope. I just could not conceive of Jesus being afraid.
And my first thought was, “What would Socrates say?”
Socrates, like Jesus, was persecuted and ultimately killed for preaching a truth that those in authority did not want to hear. Like Jesus, Socrates could have escaped and chose not to. Unlike Jesus, Socrates showed no fear in the face of death. Of course his death was a lot less painful and horrific. He drank some hemlock and fell asleep, instead of being tortured to death.
But there was more here than that. Socrates insisted that death could not be an evil to a just man, and died in a manner that proved the conviction of his words. Jesus was a perfect man, and yet He sweat blood in fear and distress, and prayed that the cup be taken away from Him.
This is important to me. Perhaps this is part of why Socrates has only ever been an inspiration to the elite few, the intellectuals with a strong sense of discipline and trust in their own natural righteousness. He appeals to the strong, old pagan sense of courage which insists that, whether or not man can achieve justice by his own efforts, he is honor bound to make the effort.
Jesus appeals to the weak, the pathetic, the crushed, the downtrodden. He is the friend that I have turned to in all of my fears, uncertainties, and doubts, because I thought that He would be able to help me through them. After all, there is no fear in Him, right?
But if He truly was afraid, as I realize now He must have been, then I was wrong. (I wonder if maybe He truly can be an idol after all? Not Him, but my idea of Him?) It is not His fearlessness that aids me in my moments of fear, but His fearfulness. Which reveals how He chooses to help, not by removing the fear, but by joining me in the fear. He embraces it so intimately that our pain wounds Him more deeply than it wounds ourselves. No matter how deep into hopelessness we go, He has gone deeper, and He is waiting there to embrace us. He brings love into the depths of blackness, loneliness and despair, and as deep as the pit goes, His love will go deeper still.
Perfect love does cast out fear, because only perfect love is strong enough to embrace it and become one with it, and so rob it of its power.