Fearful wonder

Today’s Bible readings are Malachi 3.1-4; 4.1-6; Psalm 25.3-9; Luke 1.57-66.

I am interested in the relationship of fear and joy. There is a kind of fear, it seems to me, that has nothing at all to do with joy; this is the fear associated with terror. It is the sort we experience when we are in peril. Such fear robs its victims of joy and ruins lives. Its only positive aspect is that it might spark a ‘fight or flight’ response by which a person may escape the clutches of one who intended their harm.

The fear of the Lord is an altogether different thing. This is the fear we associate with reverence and awe. It is the kind we experience when we are confronted by something (or someone) completely beyond our control or comprehension. This is humility before God; it is wonder, amazement or astonishment and it issues in joy, sheer joy. Notice the connection in Malachi 4.2: ‘But for you who revere [fear] my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.’ It is there too in the Gospel reading at the naming of John the Baptist and the restoration of Zechariah’s speech: ‘And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him (Luke 1.63b-66)’. The fear that came upon the neighbours did not silence them, it did not terrorize them but rather provoked them to talk excitedly about what was happening and to reflect on its significance.

We need more of this kind of fear, the fear of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom. If our eyes are open we might experience it as we approach Christmas and reflect again on the mystery of the Incarnation.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.

Mary Oliver, ‘Mysteries, Yes’ in Evidence, (2009, Bloodaxe Books).

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