Redemption and fear are linked. Fear is in the background during every event of redemption. The Israelites were terrified when they saw the Egyptians hot on their heels. Terror filled their hearts as they “marched into the midst of the sea on dry land, with the water like a wall to their right and to their left.” (Ex. 14:22) In the midst of fear, God draws close to redeem us.
As Jesus was arrested, all the disciples deserted him out of fear. When Peter was accused of being his disciple, he denied him because of fear. After his crucifixion, they were devastated and fearful of what would happen next. The apostles were locked in the upper room “for fear of the Jews.” (Jn. 20:19) In the midst of fear and isolation, God draws close to redeem us.
COVID-19 has instilled fear in many people. The constant news coverage rouses uncertainty and anxiety. Healthcare workers are apprehensive as they work on the front lines. People worry about how long they will be jobless. Even after restrictions are removed, how long will it take before it’s safe? On Monday someone called to argue that “fear over faith” caused us to suspend Masses. She kept repeating that the problem is “fear over faith.” Even though that is not why we suspended Masses, she is aware of all the fear in the air.
When sickness or death come knocking at the door, and our hearts recoil in fear, the Lord comes to rescue us. In the midst of fear and isolation, God draws close to redeem us.
God’s closeness is the antidote to fear. To depict this closeness, the Scriptures often use the image of God as the bridegroom or husband. God is devoted to his people, like a husband toward his wife, so the Church is the Bride of Christ. But there is an even more potent scriptural image to describe how the Lord draws close to rescue us from suffering. It is the Lord as Redeemer.
Listen how Isaiah consoles the people with both images in this passage written for the Israelites during their exile. At this point, they have been in exile for 40 years. Think of how despondent, disheartened and fearful they must have been.
“The One who has become your husband is your Maker; his name is the LORD of hosts; your redeemer is the Holy One of Israel, called God of all the earth . . . For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great tenderness I will take you back. In an outburst of wrath, for a moment I hid my face from you; but with enduring love I take pity on you, says the LORD, your redeemer.” (Is. 54:5-8)
In the Hebrew culture, being a redeemer implied two things. First, the redeemer was the nearest of kin, often the oldest male relative. Second, the redeemer had an obligation to rescue his relatives from hardship. For example, if a man lost his land and was sold into slavery, the family’s redeemer was obligated to ransom him. So the term redeemer signified kinship or closeness with the obligation to ransom, rescue, or redeem.
With that in mind, the prophet Isaiah said to the Israelites in captivity, “Your redeemer is the Holy One of Israel, called God of all the earth.” Nothing can stop God Almighty from rescuing you. He is your redeemer, bonded to you like your nearest relative; he will rescue you. He is obligated to ransom you. He must redeem you. Isaiah went on to say, “Though the mountains leave their place and the hills be shaken, my love shall never leave you nor my covenant of peace be shaken, says the Lord, who has mercy on you.” (Is. 54:10)
The redeemer was the ‘oldest brother’ of the clan who protected and rescued the others. That is how St. Paul described Jesus. In the Letter to the Romans he wrote, “He is the firstborn among many brothers.” (8:29) He is the eldest brother. Jesus took on human flesh and became a brother to all humanity. He breathed his Spirit into our hearts, and we became sons and daughters of God. Jesus has a kinship with us. He is close to us to rescue us.
He proved his kinship in the passion. Even though Peter denied him and all the disciples abandoned him, he stayed committed to them. Peter had promised to be as faithful as a blood brother, but Jesus was the true brother. The first words of the Risen Lord to Mary Magdalen were, “Do not be afraid. Go tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.” (Mt. 28:10)
Even after they deserted him, he called the disciples his ‘brothers.’ As far as Jesus was concerned, his relationship to them was rock solid. Not because they deserved it, but because that’s who God is. This is why Pope Francis talks so much about ‘closeness.’ God’s closeness is another way of talking about his mercy.
Every Easter we proclaim the steadfast mercy of God. We sing Psalm 118 which says, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his mercy endures forever.” (Ps. 118:1) To be fearless is to be convinced that Jesus’ mercy is unshakable. “Though the mountains leave their place and the hills be shaken, my love shall never leave you nor my covenant of peace be shaken, says the Lord, who has mercy on you.” (Is. 54:10) He is our Redeemer, our eldest brother who is obligated to rescue us. That is what we celebrate on Easter.
The opposite of fear is Love. One of my favorite Scripture passages is from the First Letter of John who wrote: “Love comes to its perfection in us when we can face the Day of Judgement fearlessly. In love there is no room for fear, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear implies punishment and whoever is afraid has not come to perfection in love.” (1 Jn. 4:17-18) The opposite of fear is Love. If you are afraid, for any reason whatsoever, then God’s Love is not yet perfect in you. Be patient, but don’t give up until all fear is gone. “In love there is no room for fear.”
If you think that it’s not possible, then look at Julian of Norwich. She lived in England when the Black Plague killed over half the people, and she herself nearly died from the plague. Her first husband was killed when she was 31 years old. She remarried and had three children; then her second husband died when she was 47 years old. She lived during a schism in the Church when three men claimed to be pope. In her lifetime, the archbishop and king of England were both assassinated.
In the midst of that turmoil and tragedy, she wrote: Although we are now in tribulation, uneasiness, and woe, yet are we sure and safe by the merciful protection of God so that we perish not… Thus I saw that God is our true peace, and He is our sure keeper when we are ourselves unpeaceful, and He continually works to bring us into endless peace. . . . He said not, “Thou shalt not be tempted; thou shalt not be troubled; thou shalt not be distressed,” but He said, “Thou shalt not be overcome.” God wills that we take heed to these words, and we be very strong in certain trust, in well and in woe, for as He loves and delights in us, so He wills that we love Him and delight in Him and strongly trust in Him; and all shall be well. (A Lesson of Love, pp. 113 & 179) Julian of Norwich knew Jesus as the Redeemer.
This Easter, there are two takeaways. First, let the love of God come to perfection in you. You can’t earn it. Just receive it – like Mary Magdalene, Peter, Thomas and the other disciples. Let the Redeemer’s steadfast mercy drive out all fear. What more could God do to convince us of his abiding love? “Though the mountains leave their place and the hills be shaken, my love shall never leave you nor my covenant of peace be shaken, says the Lord, who has mercy on you.” (Is. 54:10)
Second, infect others with Christ. C.S. Lewis said, “[Jesus] came to this world and became a man in order to spread to other men the kind of life He has — by what I call “good infection.” Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.” (Mere Christianity). Today people worry constantly about being infected by others. Instead focus on transmitting the ‘good infection’ of Christ to others.
We are meant to be witnesses, redeemed witnesses who infect others with Christ. Peter said, “[Jesus] went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses of all that he did.” (Acts 10:38-39) A redeemed witness goes about doing good and healing others. A redeemed witness rescues others in their brokenness. Like the healthcare workers who are tending to the sick, drawing close to them like brothers and sisters. Like those who are donating funds to help the needy in our communities, even though they have suffered financial losses in their own business.
A church of redeemed witnesses is a ‘field hospital’ being close to the sick and poor. This kind of church even sacrifices gathering as a community for Easter out of concern for the sick and to prevent the elderly and those whose health is compromised from being infected. It does this out of concern for healthcare workers so that they are not inundated with even more patients.
Instead of being paralyzed by fear or disgruntled because of a short-term isolation, we ought to be redeemed witnesses. What can you do in your community to be a ‘little Christ,’ to bring God’s closeness to others? How are you transmitting the ‘good infection’ of Christ to others?
In the midst of fear and isolation, God always draws close to redeem us. In these days, despite physical distancing, we are sent to draw close to others as redeemed witnesses. We are sent to be brothers and sisters like Christ.