The Fear of Death and the Mind of Christ

We’ve already discussed the fear of death and the need, as one elder put it, to “stand where Christ was crucified,” trusting that Christ has already trampled death by his death, freeing us from its slavery. This requires nothing less than a perceptual shift. The following excerpt continues our exploration of this theme; it comes from the current issue of Weavings, and is written by the Anglican solitary Maggie Ross:

… [Christianity’s] essential message is this: to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Heb 2:15, NRSV). The fear of death can take many forms, most of which have little to do with what might happen after our bodies die. Rather, fear of death is a matter of the mind. It has everything to do with how we perceive and interpret our experience. Our self-consciousness generates anxieties that make us vulnerable to manipulation and coercion in every sphere of our lives, from the most trivial preoccupation with fashion to the fate of our planet. It is our consent to the exploitation of fear and uncertainty that makes us complicit in inflicting physical or spiritual death on ourselves or others. Our fretful search for certainty becomes a search for numb complacency.

But faith challenges this complacency. Faith is not about suspending critique but exercising it as it issues from a silent space of love, a reality yet unseen (Heb 11:1). Faith is about finding security in insecurity, the realization that unless we work hard to maintain a hole in the heavens by which the closed universe of anxiety is breached, the fate of everything in our created world will be determined by the human fear of “death.”

The Christian methodology that overcomes the fear of death is summed up in the great passage from Phillippians 2:5-11, often known as the “kenotic hymn.” Paul’s preface is succint: our problems originate in our anxieties. Their resolution, says Paul, is to “Let this mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus …” (Phil 2:5, my emphasis).

Christ takes on the burden of our self-consciousness but is never trapped by its anxieties. He never loses the clarity of his gaze on the Father, the secret exchange of love in faith. Both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament gather this gaze and all that it implies into the single word “behold.” Sadly this word has vanished from modern translations of the Bible and the liturgy, and with it has vanished the most important message that Christianity or any other religion has to offer.

“Behold” is not an archaic word. Even in modern Hebrew one does not say, “Here is the salt” but rather “Behold the salt.” “Behold” is the marker word throughout the Bible. It signals shifting perspective, the holding together or even the conflating of radically different points of view. It signals the moment when the language of belief is silenced by the exaltation of faith as these paradoxical perspectives are brought together and generate, as it were, an explosion of silence and light. This silence holds us in thrall, in complete self-forgetfulness. Our settled accounting of ordinary matters is shattered and falls into nothing as light breaks upon us. Beholding is not confined to monastic cells; it is the wellspring of ordinary life transfigured.

The fourteenth-century mystic Julian of Norwich understands the importance of the word “behold.” Her Revelations of Divine Love are an explication of this single word. “Behold” is profoundly theological. It describes a reciprocal holding in being, the humility of God sharing the divine nature with what it creates. God, the creator of all, God who is beyond being, in humility allows us, created beings, to hold God in being in time and sapce, even as God is holding us in eternity.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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