Rise, and Do Not Be Afraid

Rise, and Do Not Be Afraid

I grew up on a farm, and sometimes I rode with my father on the tractor when he was out working in the fields. On occasion he let me take the steering wheel; that was okay, because he was still the one actually driving. When I was about eleven, however, he began having me drive slowly through the cornfield with a wagon hitched behind, while he, my mother, and my brothers and sister walked behind and tossed into the wagon all the loose ears of corn lying on the ground. That worked out well enough—until one time when I wasn’t paying enough attention and drove the tractor into a ditch. Fortunately it wasn’t too hard to get the tractor out, but after that I really didn’t want to drive it anymore. However, it was necessary for me to do so, so my father told me, “Get back up there—don’t be afraid.”

All of us have had experiences requiring us to move forward in life, go beyond our comfort zones, or learn something new that wasn’t easy for us. Perhaps it was when we were learning to ride a bike—and kept falling off. Maybe it involved learning to roller skate, and we found it hard to let go of the wall around the rink because we knew we would quickly fall down, perhaps hurting ourselves and certainly embarrassing ourselves. It may have been the first time we went into the deep end of the swimming pool, or our first oral report or speech in high school. When riding a horse, it’s not always easy to get right back into the saddle after being thrown off, even though we’re told that’s the right thing to do. If we’ve ever been in a car accident, it can be hard for us to get behind the wheel once again. However, all these things are necessary. In the same way, it’s also necessary for us to keep on trying to overcome our faults and grow in God’s grace, even though our bad habits seem to get the better of us and our sins often cause us to fall. God never gives up on us; we must never give up on ourselves. Though we’ve fallen in our sinfulness, Jesus challenges us to “Rise, and do not be afraid.”

We might say that an important Lenten theme is “self-surrender,” and the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent speak of the need to let go of anything we cling to in our fear, and instead trust in God’s loving care for us. In the Book of Genesis (12:1-4), Abram (whose name was later lengthened to Abraham) was called by God to leave his homeland—a very radical step in ancient times—and travel to a land he knew nothing about, and where he knew no one—all this at the age of 75. Last week we saw that Adam and Eve didn’t trust God, but disobeyed Him by eating the forbidden fruit; here, however, Abram did trust and obey the Lord— and God fulfilled His promise to make of him a great nation. Many centuries later, St. Timothy was one of St. Paul’s fellow workers. In the 2nd Letter to Timothy (2 Tim 1:8-10), he is invited to grow in holiness by letting go of sin. The reading says, “bear your share of hardship for the gospel,” and this refers to the sacrifices involved in placing God’s will first, while letting go of false values which prevent this—things such as an excessive attraction to money, power, possessions, status, or pleasure. We’re told that, while this may be difficult, we can afford to take the risk of trusting in Jesus, for He “destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” The Gospel of Matthew (17:1-9) itself shows Jesus being transfigured—that is, His divine glory shone through His human appearance; this was to provide the apostles with a consoling and strengthening memory during their coming crisis of faith at the time of Jesus’ death. When God the Father said, “This is My beloved Son . . . listen to Him,” Peter and the others fell down in fear. However, Jesus touched them and said, “Rise, and do not be afraid.”

There was once a boy who had to walk home each evening past a dark, spooky house; he was terrified because local legend claimed the house was haunted. Some adults felt sorry for him, and they used various techniques in an effort to give him courage. One took a psychological approach by handing him a good luck charm and saying, “Here— this will protect you from any ghosts who are there.” A second adult was much more practical: he arranged for a street light to be installed on that dreaded corner. Still another person tried a more spiritual approach, telling the boy, “Trust in God and be brave!” All these approaches were well-meaning and had some value, but the boy was still terrified. Finally, one understanding, compassionate adult said, “I know what it is to be afraid, so I will walk with you past the house.” He didn’t actually remove the fear, but he lifted it from the child’s shoulders and placed it on his own (Roy B. Zuck, The Speaker’s Quote Book, p. 151).

This is what Jesus has done for us; He has taken our sins upon Himself and faced death on our behalf—in the process opening the way for us into eternal life. He understands our sufferings and fears; He allows us to give them a deep meaning and value by uniting them with His own, even as He walks with us on our journey through life. It is necessary, however, that we put one step in front of the other, moving forward even when our fear or anxiety tempts us to remain where we are. Maybe the difficult challenge facing us is to swallow our pride and apologize to someone we’ve wronged; perhaps it’s to offer a gentle word of correction to another person, even though we know that message won’t be well-received. Possibly the fear we have to overcome involves the reaction of our co-workers when we begin refusing to take part in office gossip and politicking, or what our friends and neighbors will say when we start defending the Church’s teachings, or what family members will think when we start taking our Catholic faith much more seriously. Maybe our deepest fear centers around just what the Lord might ask of us if we completely surrender ourselves into His hands, instead of holding onto control of our lives for ourselves and keeping religion within carefully defined limits. In all of these and many other ways, it’s natural for us to be concerned, and even a bit gun-shy if we’ve had a failure or bad experience in the past. However, Jesus never abandons us or leaves us in the lurch; He’s always right beside us to give us a helping hand, if only we give Him our trust. Because of the devil’s snares and attacks, the difficulties and challenges of life at the beginning of the 21st century, and our human weakness, many times life will knock us down—but each time, Jesus says to us, “Rise, and do not be afraid.”

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Written by
Fr Joseph Esper