Godly fear

A reflection at the Vesperal Liturgy of St. Basil on the morning of Holy Thursday.

Exodus 19:10-19

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go down to the people and solemnly charge them and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their clothes. Let them be ready for the third day. For on the third day the Lord will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. Thou shall set bounds for the people all around, saying, Take heed to yourselves that you do not go up to the mountain or touch its base. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely die. Not a hand shall touch it, but he shall surely be stoned or shot with an arrow; whether man or beast, he shall not live. When the trumpets sound and the cloud is over the mountain, then they shall go up on the mountain.” So Moses went down from the mountain to the people and sanctified the people, and they washed their clothes. And he said to the people, “Be ready for the third day; do not go near your wives.” Then it came to pass on the third day, that in the morning there were sounds and lightnings and a thick cloud on mount Sinai; the sound of the trumpet was very loud, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was completely in smoke because the Lord descended upon it in fire. Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder.

Job 38:1-21; 42:1-5

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: “Who is this who hides counsel from me and confines words in his heart and thinks to conceal them from me? Gird thy waist like a man; I will question thee, and you will answer me. Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements? Surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? To what were its foundations fastened? Or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars were made, and all my angels praised me in a loud voice. I shut up the sea with doors when it burst forth and issued from the womb; I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band; I fixed my limit for it and set bars and doors; and I said, ‘This far you may come, but no farther, and here you proud waves must stop!’ Have you commanded the morning since your days began and caused the dawn to know its place that it might take hold of the ends of the earth and the wicked be shaken out of it? Or did you take clay of the ground and form a living creature and set it with the power of speech upon the earth? From the wicked have you removed light and crushed the arm of the proud? Have you entered the springs of the sea? Or have you walked in search of the depths? Have the gates of death been revealed to you? Or have you seen the doors of the shadow of death? Have you comprehended the breadth of the earth? Tell me, what is the extent of it? Where is the way to the dwelling of light? And darkness, where is its place, that you may take it to its territory and know the paths to its home? Do you know it because you were born then or because the number of your days is great?” Then Job answered the Lord and said: “I know that thou canst do everything, and that no purpose of thine can be withheld from thee. Thou didst ask, ‘Who is this who hides counsel from thee? Or who keeps back his words, and thinks to hide them from thee?’ Or who can tell me what I did not know?’ But hear me, O Lord, and let me speak; thou didst say, ‘I will question thee, and you will answer me.’ I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee.”

1 Corinthians 11:23-32

Brethren, I received from the Lord that which I also handed on to you: that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread; and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said: “Take, eat; this is my body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same manner he also took the cup after supper, saying: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till he comes. Therefore, whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sin against the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason, many are weak and sick among you, and many have died; For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord that we may not be condemned with the world.

Matthew 26:2-20

The Lord said to his disciples, “You know that after two days the Pascha is coming and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.” Then the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and took counsel together in order to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. But they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be a tumult among the people.” Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment; and she poured it on his head as he sat at table. But when the disciples saw it, they were indignant saying, “Why this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for a large sum, and given to the poor.” But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. Truly I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I deliver Jesus to you?” And they paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he sought an opportunity to betray Jesus. Now on the first day of the Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus saying, “Where will you have us prepare for you to eat the Pascha?” Jesus said, “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, “my time is at hand; I will keep the Pascha at your house with my disciples.”’ “And the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Pascha. When it was evening, Jesus sat at table with his twelve disciples.

John 13:3-17

And knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands and that he had come from God and was going to God, Jesus rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded. He came to Simon Peter. And Peter said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not realize now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet!” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but he is clean all over; and you are clean, but not every one of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; that is why he said, “You are not all clean.” When he had washed their feet and taken his garments and resumed his place, he said to them: “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed art thou if you do them.”

Matthew 26:21-39

And as they were eating, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” And they were very sorrowful and began to say to him one after another, “Is it I, Lord?” He answered and said, “He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me, will betray me. The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” Judas, who betrayed him, said, “Is it I, Master?” Jesus said to him, “You have said so.” Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took the cup; and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them saying, “Drink of it, all of you. For this is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom.” And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. Then Jesus said to them, “You will fall away because of me this night, for it is written: ‘I will strike the Shepherd, And the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter declared to him, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” Jesus said to him, “Truly, I say to you this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” Peter said to him, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” And so said all the disciples. Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to the disciples, “Sit here while I go yonder and pray.” And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then Jesus said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch with me.” And going a little farther, he fell on his face and prayed saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou willest.”

Luke 22:43-45

And there appeared to Jesus an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony, he prayed more earnestly. And his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.

And, getting up from prayer, Jesus came to his disciples, and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, Could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cup cannot pass unless I drink it, thy will be done.” And again he came and found them asleep, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, Jesus went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep on now and take your rest. Behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.” While he was still speaking, behold, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a great crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign saying, “The one I shall kiss is the man, seize him.” And he came up to Jesus at once and said, “Hail Master!” And Judas kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, why are you here?” Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him. And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot now appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But How then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that it must be so?” At that hour Jesus said to the crowd, “Have you come out, as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples forsook him and fled. Then those who had seized Jesus led him to Caiaphas the high priest where the scribes and the elders had gathered. But Peter followed him at a distance as far as the courtyard of the high priest. And going inside, he sat with the guards to see the end. Now the chief priests and the elders and the whole council sought false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death; but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.’“ And the high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” But Jesus was silent. And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God!” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has uttered blasphemy! Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard now his blasphemy! What is your judgment?” They answered, “He deserves death.” Then they spat in his face and struck him; and some slapped him saying, “Prophesy to us, Christ! Who is it that struck you?” Now Peter sat outside in the courtyard. And a maid came up to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” But Peter denied it before them all saying, “I do not know what you mean.” And when he went out to the porch, another maid saw him and said to the bystanders, “This man also was with Jesus of Nazareth.” And again Peter denied with an oath, “I do not know the Man!” After a little while, the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly, you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.” Then Peter began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know the Man!” And Immediately the cock crowed. And Peter remembered the saying of Jesus: “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly. When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took council against Jesus to put him to death. And they bound him, and led him away and delivered him to Pontius Pilate the governor.

Holy Thursday is the day we remember the Last Supper. On this day we will consecrate two lambs at Holy Communion, and save one of them as the reserved sacrament for the year to come. The other theme for today is fear. We are learning about the fear of God, and the awesome and terrible moment at which we come face to face with Him.

Our first Old Testament reading is from the story of the people of Israel, when they had escaped from Egypt. The Israelites have come to Mt. Sinai, and God warns them not to touch the holy mountain. Anyone who does will die immediately. In the second Old Testament reading, Job hears the voice of God. This reading comes at the end of the book of Job, when Job and his friends have been reasoning about the nature of God’s providence. Suddenly God speaks. God impresses upon Job that Job is a mere human. God asks, pedagogically, if Job was the one who made the earth. The answer is obviously no, and so the implication is that Job is put in his place. In the epistle reading, St. Paul speaks about approaching the Holy Mysteries with reverence and awe. The consequence for the one who approaches the mysteries with presumption and irreverence, is that they eat and drink judgment.

In order to get a fuller understanding of the nature of the fear of God, we must consider the fact that all of these people were already afraid, but with a different kind of fear. The Israelites were afraid because all they had ever known was slavery. They were afraid that the Egyptians would recapture them. They were afraid that God would abandon them in the desert. They were afraid to enter the Holy Land.

We too are often afraid because of our enslavement to sin. Will God truly free us? We struggle to see how the law of God is also the warm embrace of a loving Father. We are afraid that those around us who are enslaved to sin may never be free.

In the story of Job, the voice of God is heard after Job and his friends have argued over whether God is just. Does God protect the righteous? Job does not think so. Everything was taken from Job. He lost his children, household, livestock: everything. Job is afraid that his trust in God was for nothing.

In adversity, we too fear that God has abandoned us. The more we invest in our faith, the more we have left behind to follow Christ, the more we have to lose if it all turns out to be a lie.

In the gospel reading we read almost entirely about fear. In the first part of the gospel reading, the apostles are all indignant because of the woman who poured out perfume on the feet of Jesus. They are actually afraid because for a few years now, they have been wandering from place to place with Jesus, not knowing where their next meal will come from, or where they will sleep. Judas is so afraid that Jesus might be a false Messiah, that he decides to ensure that he will be friends with the chief priests. At least he, Judas, will not be killed with Jesus when Jesus’ ministry is brought to a sudden end, in what Judas fears will be a defeat and failure. We too worry about our material wellbeing. We are afraid of being seen as failures, afraid of saving face. We fear that we have only ourselves to rely on.

Peter seems to be brave in the gospel readings. He professes his willingness to die with Jesus. But we know that he actually does not have the strong faith that he wishes that he had. Perhaps the outspokenness and eagerness of Peter is a compensation for a mind that is completely riddled with fear. Many of us also make loud and showy pronouncements of faith. We may overcompensate by trying outdo others in asceticism, knowledge of the lives of saints, seriousness and strictness. This is often because we fear that we will not be able to live up to the stature of a “true” Orthodox Christian.

When Jesus warns the disciples that they will run away from him, betray him and deny him, they are so afraid of this notion that they disregard it. When Jesus warns them that he will soon die, they tell themselves that he is just being dramatic. We also pick and choose which of the words of Jesus we will hear. When they are hard for us, we begin to negotiate and reason that Jesus couldn’t have meant what he said. In our fear we also run away from Christ and deny him when we sin. That is the nature of life-destroying fear.

In the readings today we are offered a picture of the life-giving fear of God, and it is completely different. In the story of the Israelites at Mt. Sinai, the Israelites are not simply told not to approach the mountain. They are given a few days to cleanse their garments (and also their hearts and minds). When they have prepared themselves with mindfulness, they are able to approach God with sobriety, gratitude, reverence and confidence. The life-giving fear of God has confidence in God’s love.

While Job hears God “out of the storm,” he nonetheless is able to repent and take back his words. He admits that he had spoken about things he could not understand. He hears the admonition of God and he is able to ask for God to teach him. This too is the life-giving fear of God. This is the nature of the repentance which God has given to us as a gift. Repentance brings about a life-giving correctness, a holy seriousness, standing up straight in our full stature. The fullest respectability and dignity of a human is to revere God and hope in his love in spite of how much God is also to be feared. Peter sees that he has denied Jesus, just as Jesus had said. Peter’s tears and wailing are given to him as the beginning of the godly fear. He has tasted the utter despair of the one who turns his back on Christ. This is the dark night experienced by the who has lost out on the opportunity to suffer with Jesus. Peter abhors the idea of ever failing again that same way, and this fear leads Peter through his apostolic ministry, and strengthens Peter when he himself eventually dies as a martyr for Christ.

Jesus delivers the disciples and us from deathly fear by sojourning with us in the place of our fear. God asks Job, “Have you entered the springs of the sea? Or have you walked in search of the depths? Have the gates of death been revealed to you? Or have you seen the doors of the shadow of death?” The implication is that God has entered the sea (with the Israelites), he has destroyed the gates of death (as the one who is crucified before the foundation of the world). He abides with us in the place that we fear the most. Jesus is afraid with us when he sweats blood in the garden of Gethsemane. He prays out loud (for the sake of the hearers), expressing his fear to his Father. And he also allows the disciples to know that the angels are there with him in his hour of fear. He shows us that the angels are also with us in the hour of our fear.

This transformation of the deathly fear into a godly fear is given to us on the day when we commemorate the Last Supper, because now we are approaching the body and blood of Christ as we hear him say, “take, eat.” We must approach Jesus’ body and blood with a godly fear. We do not touch the holy mountain or the Holy Things until we have cleaned our garments. We hear God’s mighty voice, and we ask him to teach us. Having confessed our sins, and having been healed with Holy Unction yesterday, today we stand with confidence but also with awe. We dare approach the chalice because we have been taught the correct type of fear. Holy fear is dignified. Holy fear is grateful. When we come to the Holy Communion, the deacon tells us, “with the fear of God, in faith and love, draw near.”

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