My jovial father was much older than I was. Forty-one years older, to be exact. He had had polio like FDR (only in his left leg), and although he didn’t have a very high opinion of FDR, just like FDR he never complained about his polio. He would just joke about his “gimpy leg”. He was a junior naval officer with a gimpie leg. How he ever got the sea legs to command the depth charge crew on the USS Charette, I’ll never know in this life because he’s long gone.
Perhaps not great in the average estimation, my father was great to me, because I didn’t have too many other fathers to compare him to. I only had the one. Dad had some faults, but one fault he didn’t have was fear. At least he didn’t display it. What was there left to fear when you had survived the Depression and the War? So, when one of his sons complained about being told he had to do something that he didn’t want to do, Dad would needle him. “Oh, I know. It’s a fate worse than death!” He would say that in jest, just to put our protestations into perspective.
Seriously, though. Is there a fate worse than death? We Christians know that it’s a fate worse than death to be separated from God’s love for an eternity. That’s a fate worse than death – at least that is what we are taught from the pulpit. What is the Orthodox concept of hell? Being cast into an eternal lake of fire isn’t our concept of hell. That’s the Western concept of eternal punishment. The Orthodox concept is totally different. Hell is to encounter the love of God and to find that love totally alien to us. If we can’t bear to be exposed to the love of God, it “scares us to death”.
Three of the greatest political leaders of the 1980s were Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II. Together they stared down the communist ghost of the waning Soviet Union. John Paul II was more than the Catholics’ pope; he was the world’s pope. He would travel all over the globe. When he went to his native Poland, thousands upon thousands would greet him. The pope would stand up to the microphone and tell his fellow Poles, his fellow Catholics, “Do not be afraid!” Some cynics probably thought, “Right. We’re trapped here under the communist jackboot, and you tell us not to fear?”
The pope sounded like the Savior himself. “Fear not,” Jesus would say to his disciples, especially after his resurrection. Paraphrasing now: “It is I. Touch me if you don’t believe me. I am back and I will never leave you or forsake you.” Nobody had ever come back from the grave. Not only had Jesus come back, but he came back in strength. Who WOULDN’T follow a man like that, even to death and the grave? The apostles must have been riveted. No wonder all but one of them submitted himself to martyrdom, the last to exile. Seeing before their very eyes the man who had conquered death by dying and coming back to life again, they remembered that he had told them that he was Resurrection and Life itself.
There is indeed a fate worse than death. It is to live in FEAR. Our present fear is the fear of Covid-19. Fear that we may catch Covid and get deathly ill and die, or that someone in our family may die from it. Some have, others may. That we may lose our job, as many have. That we may get thrown out onto the street. That our nation will succumb to evil political forces, as it appears to be. Or only that the precarious balance of our daily lives will be thrown off kilter, as if any of our lives will ever be the same again.
Afraid of catching the virus, we hesitate to go to church. After all, attendance is optional, isn’t it? Afraid of the liability, even the suggestion of liability should an attendee catch the bug, some metropolises and parish councils have taken preposterous measures for “everyone’s safety”. Well, alright. Their intentions were good. At least we hope that they were good.
But, such extreme fastidiousness have had the opposite effect. They’ve only exacerbated the fear. Instead of encouraging our parishioners to partake of the bread of life, we have put obstacles in their way. We’ve made it harder for them to approach the chalice and receive the very thing that they need more than anything else at this time! Where is the “safety” in that?
There are a lot of weak brethren out there. Here’s an example. There is a young woman who comes to church toward the end of the Liturgy. She furtively approaches the chalice to receive communion, mask on until the last moment. When she returns to her pew in front of me, she nervously touches her husband’s muscular hand. He has lost his job but seems stalwart. She clutches his fingers, then lets go, then clutches them again. Her eyes dart this way and that. She was always a bit high-strung, but now she appears to be downright neurotic. Poor woman. God love her. At least she had the courage to come to church.
God forgive me if this sounds presumptuous, and it certainly is not meant to condemn. I can only write out of intuition. In any case, that is the sort of fear that is worse than death. To live day in day out in such trepidation of a virus that you can’t see, and of the ripple effect of the illness that it can cause, and the disruption that it brings to one’s life – THAT is a fate worse than death. After living like that, it may even be a comfort to simply die and rest forever.
But, no. There is no need for that kind of fear. None at all. “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:27) Those are the words spoken several times and for eternity by our beloved Savior, Christ the Lord of all. None of us can grasp the flood of courage that comes from simply trusting him and believing those words from the depths of one’s heart. The greatest man who ever lived said it, and since he still lives, that settles it. “Don’t be afraid,” the pope said forty years ago. “Peace be unto all,” chants the priest during the Divine Liturgy. They speak for Christ.
There is an older woman at church. For medical reasons, she cannot take the vaccination as the state demands, so her employer has let her go. Two of her adult children in the same household have lost their jobs for the same genetic reason. What cruel employers would do that to their staffs? She said to me, weeping, “I don’t care. I’ll take my chances with Covid. I’m trusting in God. I’ll trust him to the end.” Now, that’s courage. Not a courage spoken out of bravado, but one spoken through tears. Courage spoken from the depths of a Christian faith tried and true.
“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.” (I John 1:18) Let’s lay down our fears, take up courage, and with a bold abandon, approach our Lord’s throne to find help in this time of great need.