Do not be afraid

A word cloud is a visual representation of a particular group of words. In its simplest form, a word cloud generator produces an image of the text in a relatively random distribution around the page – a couple of words here, a couple of words there, different colors, facing in different directions, tucked tightly into each other or shooting off into the margins. It’s, you know, words, in kinda the shape of a cloud. The point of word clouds is to show you which words matter – which words are used a lot, or which words carry more weight than others. It’s really quite simple – words that matter are just bigger. For example, Ellen Doster recently created a set of word clouds for our Family Mass Cards using the texts of the Ordinary of the Mass. They look like you would expect them to look: the word cloud for the Gloria is dominated by the words “God” and “Glory” and the word cloud for the Sanctus is basically just a big, giant “Holy” looming over the rest of the teeny tiny text. So you get the point – the big words are the words that matter.

So what would a word cloud look like for the Gospel text this evening? Funny you should ask that, because I just happened to create a couple to see what would happen. Most of them looked just the same, and how they looked was mostly unsurprising. Jesus was pretty big, and risen. So far, so good-and-Eastery. Said was also pretty big – no big shocker there. Behold was a bit of a surprise – most of the word cloud generators made that word enormous. It appears only twice in the Gospel, but I guess it is a kind of power word, a word that makes you sit up and take notice. But the biggest surprise by far was that there were two words that were much bigger than I would have expected – almost as big as Jesus – words that I did not expect to see blown up all over the face of this resurrection text. But there they were, right alongside Jesus and risen and behold: fear and afraid.

Surprising, perhaps, but entirely accurate. Because when you look carefully, you’ll see a resurrection text that is haunted from start to finish with references to fear. The two Marys arrive at the tomb in the shadowy pre-dawn hours. Suddenly, an earthquake, an angel appears like lightning, and the guards at the tomb are so terrified they pass out. The angel speaks to the still-conscious women, and the first thing he says, which is right out of the angel playbook, is: “Do not be afraid.” But the women are afraid anyway, and leave the tomb in joy, and in fear. They run to tell the disciples, but run up on Jesus instead, who tells them, again, “Do not be afraid.” Words about fear are everywhere; terror really is all around, popping up in every single scene of this short little Gospel reading.

And, if you think about, there is a lot to be afraid of here. The dark. Earthquakes. Lightning. Angels that rumble down from heaven and pop out at you from behind stone tombs. Enclosed spaces. Death. Throw in a handful of spiders and the number 13 and you’ve basically covered all of the major fear groups. And then, of course, there is the fear of change. There are some pretty intense changes going on here.  The women have gone to the tomb expecting to see Jesus very, very dead. Instead they hear that Jesus is actually very much alive. They hear that all of the things that he told them had actually been true. Here they are, a day and a half after the crucifixion, when they had just started to get used to the idea that maybe it was all over, that Jesus was really and truly gone and that they were going to have to try to squeeze their lives back into the little boxes they had known B.C. But now, now, they are sitting in front of an angel, who is telling them that everything has changed. For now is Christ risen from the dead. Their day, their whole lives, their whole world, is different, and that much difference, even when it is good news, can be just a bit scary.

This night, too, can be just a bit scary. We come here and sit in the dark, waiting, quiet. And then suddenly there is fire and smoke and prophecies about floods and dry bones, and then men being baptized into Christ’s death, and then this Gospel reading that is so full of fear. The lights are up now, the bells have rung, but those words can still loom large in our minds. Do not be afraid, the reminder comes, and we realize that if we are reminded of this again and again, year after year, perhaps it is because we really need to hear it. Perhaps we hear Do not be afraid again and again because heaven knows that we spend too much of our lives living in fear.

We live in fear of diagnoses and debt. We live in fear of loneliness and layoffs. We live in fear of addiction and Alzheimer’s, of drunken drivers and mentally ill pilots, of terrorism and MRSA and melting ice caps and the dissolving media. We are afraid of being in pain or without purpose. We live in fear of people who don’t look or sound or smell or think like us. We live in fear that the world might change, that our loved ones might change, that we might change. Terror is all around; no wonder it is so easy to get lost in the shadowy mess of anxiety and despair.

And when that word fear looms large in the cloud of our minds, it’s difficult to read anything else. When all we can see is fear, it’s difficult to see God and our neighbors and ourselves at all, let alone to love them. When all we can see is fear, we make bad choices and lose good friends. We eat badly and drink badly and behave badly. We listen badly and think badly. We find ourselves craving little amuse-bouche of gossip instead of hungering for knowledge that matters. We focus on self-protection instead of self-offering, on keeping them – whoever they are – out of our restaurants or off of our doorsteps, and we end up making bad laws and bad church policy. We worry and spend our time imagining the worst instead of imagining the coming of the kingdom of God. We hold tight to old resentments as if they were lifelines instead of ropes that bind our hands and hearts. We don’t do or love or choose anything right. And the worse we act, the worse it gets, because suddenly all of our fears seem actualized, if not in reality, then at least in the reality of our own heads. This is a hell of our own making, where terror is all around.

But this is why we come here tonight. This is why we sit here in the darkness together, waiting for light to burst forth and chase the shadows away. For tonight we remember, together, that fear is not the most important word in this story. Tonight we remind ourselves that Hell is vanquished, that we are free, that Christ has won for us the victory – over death, over the grave, and over fear. So do not be afraid. We may still feel fear, of course we will, but in the presence of this empty tomb we can see it for what it is – a liar and cheat. In the presence of the risen Christ we can see just how little this word really is. So do not be afraid. There is nothing that can harm you forever anymore. Do not be afraid. Christ is going ahead of you to all of the places where you are going, no matter what you might find there. Go on ahead and look for him. Do not be afraid. Behold, Jesus is risen!

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

4 April 2015 - the Great Vigil of Easter

Saint Mark's, Philadelphia


Posted on April 5, 2015 .