Over a hundred years ago, in the days of vaudeville, there was a husband-and-wife team named “Boris and Olga” who performed a knife-throwing act. Olga would stand next to a wooden wall on stage, while Boris, from twenty feet away, threw knives all around her; because Boris’ aim was absolutely perfect, the knives would come within one inch of Olga’s body, but would never even scratch her. One day, however, the act was going along as usual, when suddenly Olga uttered a terrible scream of fear and then fainted right there on stage. The audience murmured in shock and concern, the stage manager sent for a doctor, and Boris hurried over to his wife, fearing she had finally lost her nerve after so many close calls. When he and the doctor managed to revive her, they asked what was wrong. What terrible fear had caused her to faint? With a trembling voice, Olga explained, “I felt a spider crawling on my leg” (homily notebook, “Fear”).
Fear is a funny thing; we can face certain situations that would terrify many people without batting an eye, and then lose control over an apparently minor thing. We’re all unique as persons, and so we all have our unique combinations of fear and courage. Sometimes life is scary, or at the very least, uncertain—but the Lord offers us hope. Jesus can help us overcome our fears—and so the only thing we really should fear is being separated from Him.
In times of fear, weakness, and doubt, we must learn to rely upon the Lord’s strength. The prophet Jeremiah (20:10-23), who lived some 600 years before Christ, truly needed to learn this lesson. He felt he was too young to be a prophet, but God called him anyhow. He was afraid his stuttering problem disqualified him from public speaking, but God enabled him to overcome it. He was worried his unpopular message would get him into trouble, and he was right—but God preserved him. Jeremiah had many enemies, for he was constantly pointing out the sins of the nation and calling people to repent—a very unpopular and politically incorrect message. His opponents tried to twist his words against him, and to have him imprisoned and killed—but as Jeremiah stated, “The Lord is with me, like a mighty champion: my persecutors will stumble, they will not triumph.”
The powers of evil sometimes seem to gain the upper hand, but this situation is only temporary. As St. Paul (Romans 5:12-15) points out, Adam’s offense against God’s law imprisoned everyone in sin—but only until the coming of Jesus. Our Lord Himself tells us in the Gospel of Matthew (10:26-33) that we must be bold in His service, not letting ourselves be intimidated, not hiding or watering down the Good News of salvation, and not disowning or denying Him through our words and actions. God alone has control over life and death, and He is perfectly capable of protecting all who trust in Him.
The 17th century English author John Bunyan wrote a religious allegory, or symbolic story, called “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” in which Christian, the central character, is journeying through life toward Heaven. Christian is accompanied by two other characters named Fear and Mistrust. The travelers see some roaring lions on the roadside up ahead; as a result, Fear and Mistrust refuse to go further. Christian, however, though afraid, goes forward, and discovers that the lions are chained and unable to harm him or keep him from his goal (homily notebook, “Fear”). So it is with the roaring lions in our life; they may frighten us, and perhaps even cause us pain or suffering, but they cannot keep us from reaching Heaven if we let Jesus walk with us.
What sorts of things do we fear? Sometimes little things: I, for instance, sometimes worry that during a wedding I’ll forget the bride and groom’s names, or that I’ll misplace my keys and lock myself out of the rectory, or that while leading a Hail Mary my mind will suddenly go blank and I’ll stumble over the words. (I’m also not too keen on the idea of a spider crawling up my leg.) Sometimes our fears are much bigger and about much more important things; I think it’s natural for all of us at times to worry over our jobs or finances, over difficult confrontations or family problems, over our physical health and our reputations. We might be afraid that something terrible that happened in the past will repeat itself in the present, and we might fear what lies ahead of us in the future. Above all, we might worry about what will happen if we take Jesus seriously, sharing our faith and centering our lives around Him. Will people mock or reject us? Will we get into trouble? Will we alienate or embarrass our families and friends? Will we get a reputation as religious fanatics, and no longer be taken seriously? Will it seem that God is asking more of us than we’re capable of giving?
Jesus asks us to respond to all these fears by trusting in Him. It’s been noted that the words “Fear not!” or “Be not afraid!” appear in the Bible a total of 366 times—once for every day of the year, Leap Year included. We should begin each day with the realization that Jesus is with us, and that with His help, we will be able to face and overcome all of that day’s challenges. Nothing ever occurs that’s beyond God’s power; everything that happens, even if painful or frightening, can be used by Him for our greater benefit. Following Jesus isn’t always easy, but—through God’s grace—it is always possible, and it is always worth the price. Our Lord promises us that if we acknowledge Him here on earth by living as His disciples, He will acknowledge us in His Kingdom of Heaven. As long as we trust in and act upon this promise, we truly have nothing to fear.