June 2006

 

FEAR AND FAITH ©

The Gospel of Mark contains the familiar story of Jesus calming the storm that had threatened the boat in which he was travelling with his disciples. (Mk 4: 35-41)

They panic when the storm began to rock the boat on violent waves. The boat begins to take on water and they all fear that they will perish.

Jesus says to them, “Why are you afraid?” He adds, “Have you still no faith?” What does it mean for us today to hear those words? For me it means, “Why do you hesitate in acting out your faith?” “Have you no trust in me?”

This story comes right after the parable of the mustard seed. Therefore, Jesus could be saying, “Do you not believe that you are like a mustard seed – the smallest seed which, when it grows, puts out such large branches that the birds come and make their nests in its shade?” (Mk 4: 31-32)

And again, “The fruit of your faith could be abundant life for you and for others, if it was bold and unafraid.”

What would I do if I truly had faith …faith in the potential of my discipleship? What would I do if I let God’s power shelter me from fear about living as a true disciple of Jesus? Why then I would be more like Saint John the Baptist, wouldn’t I? I would proclaim more boldly the Word of God in the world as well as in church, despite the risks that such behaviour entails.

I would see, like Saint Paul, that there is no point in fearing the loss of earthly things because “everything old passed way” (cf. 2 Cor 5: 17) in my baptism and everything is under the power of Jesus – even the wind and the stormy seas on which I sometimes travel.

If I had real faith, I would not hesitate before doing as the psalmist suggests, “They cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought then out from their distress.” And I would pray in confidence knowing that my Lord “made the storm be still and the waves of the sea hushed.” (Ps 107: 29)

If I were bolder in my faith, I would live by my knowledge of what Saint John the Baptist advised in Luke’s Gospel. When asked, “Master, what should we do?” John answered with concrete suggestions, including this one, “Whoever has two shirts must give one to the one who has none, and whoever has food must share it.” (Lk 3: 10-11)

If I were unafraid because of my confidence in the Lord, I would believe that his grace is sufficient and that nothing else can replace it.

If I were less afraid of what other people thought about what I do and say, and more concerned about what God thinks, I would be speaking more boldly in the Spirit. And I would walk the talk a lot better.

If I were less afraid of losing my job, my house or my security, I would be free to follow Jesus wherever he called me, knowing in faith that he would look after me better than I could myself. If I was prepared to lose my way and follow his way; if I was prepared to lose my life to gain his, I would be free as Saint John the Baptist was to find meaning in the only everlasting reality that is God.

To some extent or other, all of us lack faith; all of us are afraid; and we always will no matter how we try. But wanting stronger faith counts for a lot, and so does prayer.

To want it means to be prepared to be different. Christians have always been different. We just have to get used to that. A letter (to Diognetus) from the first century of Christianity makes this evident.

Here are a few excerpts: “Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life.

“ With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign. And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labour under all the disabilities of aliens. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.

“They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law.

“They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonour, but that is their glory. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they, rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life.

“To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body’s hatred. Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself.”

Sisters and brothers, if our faith was stronger, people would say this of us. If we were unafraid to live our faith fully – day in and day out – no matter the circumstance, how different would be our world?

The truth is that we do, at least some of the time …at least timidly. The world is as good as it is because of good people doing good things with God’s grace. But it would be even better if we all acted on our faith more boldly in the Spirit – bold confidence that overwhelms the wind and wrestles the stormy seas.

Friends, this is my prayer: May God grant us all faith that is bold and unafraid.

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Saint John the Baptist plays a pivotal role in the history of Christianity, standing as he does at the gate between the ancient covenant and the new. He was the last of the prophets and the herald of God-among-us.

In Quebec, we associate his name with a secular celebration, disregarding or never having known – depending on our age – the fact that these festivities owe their very existence to the man that Jesus would clear a path for the ministry of Jesus, whose sandals he felt unworthy to untie. (Cf. Lk 3: 16)

Perhaps it is fitting that a society that has set aside its religious heritage would also evacuate religious meaning from its national celebration.

For my part, I accord great importance to June 24, which the Catholic Church calls the Solemnity of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist. (Aside from Jesus himself, the church marks the birth of no other saint.) The significance of this occasion for me lies in the fact that Saint John was/is the patron saint of two men of importance in my own life.

The first is Saint Francis of Assisi. Some may not realize that Saint John the Baptist was the patron saint of this celebrated 13th century penitent. His mother Pica had chosen John as his baptismal name. This was a prophetic decision as he would become a “voice in the wilderness” (Lk 3: 4/Is 40: 3) who would invite people to turn to God and believe in the Good News. (It was only later that his father returned from a business trip in France and insisted on naming him Francesco because of this love for that country.)

The other is me, a far less notable individual! I was baptised John Richard, rather than the customary Joseph Richard that French-Canadian tradition would oblige, because I was born during the vigil of this feast. For me, summer begins with the feast of Saint John the Baptist and ends with the feast of Saint Francis on October 4th.

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Fear is a recurring theme in the story of Saint John the Baptist.
First, his father felt fear when he learned of the news that his wife carried Saint John in her womb: “Zachariah seeing (the angel), was troubled, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him: Fear not, Zachariah, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth shall bear a son, and you shall call his name John: and you shall have joy and gladness, and many shall rejoice in his birth.” (Lk 1: 12-14)

Then, we are told that Herod, who would have him killed, was held back by fear: His fear of the multitude and John himself prevented Herod from killing him at first. (Mt 14: 5)

Saint John was unafraid to speak the truth and, like Jesus, gave his life for it. He did not fear to censure Herod for his moral decadence. It was like he heard the message that Isaiah had received: “Go up to a high mountain… raise your voice… raise it and do not fear.” (Is 40: 9)

Facing fear and conquering it may be what distinguishes great people. It is surely what makes it possible for them to achieve what we come to regard as noteworthy.

By contrast, fear is possibly the single greatest obstacle to living authentically. And the only way to vanquish fear, or at least to limit its effect, is to be clearly focused on the purpose of our lives and the source of all grace needed to achieve it. The antidote to fear is the confidence that God, who calls us to a particular mission, will grant us what is necessary to accomplish it.

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