Grace to you!
For the most part, when we read the Old Testament with the eye of our current time in history, we tend to misread many of the lessons. An example would be judging the conversations as fear-laden.
Take for instance the Book of Sirach 2:1-11. Relating to our relationship with God, the word fear appears about five times in these eleven verses. Often, we see such concepts as unbecoming of God who said, “I have loved you with an everlasting God and I have drawn you with my loving kindness” (Jer 31:3).
Poverty of human language is evident in religious conversations. How can we, with our limited word bank and language, capture the depth of God’s conversation? It is very difficult and, sometimes, impossible to articulate many divine conversations.
Articulations of the workings of God could be compared to a baby listening to Einstein’s lecture on quantum physics. Try as the baby of six years can, the greater part of the discussion would be over the child’s head.
Back to the concept of fear: The closest explanation by many experts in the field of Scripture and theology is “awe” instead of fear. Fear is our human emotions in response to threats. It could be negative or positive depending on the nature of the challenge or the threat. Regarding God, whose presence comes with refreshing or purifying love, the experience of fear is not negative. It is positive. Such an experience is better described as holy fear or awe.
Try as we may, we can’t overcome this awe because of the reality of God and God’s utter otherness. Meaning: since God is way above and beyond our level of love, mercy, compassion, perfection, understanding and nature as humans, closer to Him grips with awe-inspiring presence.
Compare what the prophets of old like Isaiah and Ezekiel said when they had a glimpse of God. There is the echoing of exclamatory awe. “And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5).
Peter’s confession, face-to-face with Jesus the Holy, was: “Depart from me, a sinner” (Luke 5:8).
May we get this fact straight: No matter how God has come so close to us, He is still beyond us. In our Christian theology and Catholic spirituality, we say God is within, as well as beyond us. We are created in the image and likeness of God, but we are not the same with God. God is big (permit me to use the expression—poverty of language). we are small.
There are classical, theological concepts to express the above idea, namely, God is immanent and transcendent. The immanent God (meaning the God who is close to us as a friend and a person(s) with whom we are in a relationship) is the same God who is beyond our imagining too (transcendent). The immanent dimension of divine conversation with us resonates with the warmth of mercy, compassion and identification with our frailties in Jesus.
The transcendent dimension reminds us that no matter how God is within and close to us, God isn’t the same with us. God isn’t simply the one within us. He is beyond us as well. It is this transcendence of God that comes with the resonance of holy fear, awe. The saints feel the awe. It comes to them with a pristine form of gratitude that; “what an amazing grace that God will give us the privilege to call Him Abba.”
For the sinner, this transcendence comes with the appropriateness of metanoia (change of heart, conversion), because the love of God invites us to mercy and reconciliation. For many, the reality of the loss of eternal life inspires holy fear too. Such fear leads to life eternal and doesn’t take from it. They are truly human as well.
Lord, give us the grace to reverence you, to be awe-inspired. Amen.
Fr. Maurice Emelu
Fr. Maurice Emelu, Ph.D.
Father Maurice provides a daily blog of reflections based on the bible readings of the day from the Catholic liturgical calendar. You will find these reflections helpful for your spiritual growth, inspiration and developing your own thoughts. It may also be helpful for ministers in preparing their sermons for liturgical celebrations.