“Do not be afraid,” are words we hear numerous times in the Scriptures. The message is given to Mary, Joseph and Zechariah at the encounters preparing for Jesus’ birth (cf. Matt. 1:20; Luke 1:13, 30). The angel speaks these words to the shepherds when Jesus is born (Luke 2:10). Jesus says these words to Peter after the great catch of fish (Luke 5:10). The disciples here these words at the resurrection (Matt. 28:5, 10). Jesus says them to Paul as he prepares to go into hostile territory to proclaim the Gospel (Acts 18:9; 27:24).
The words are spoken at significant times of life where some encounter or event, present or future, may overwhelm. The simple greeting comes with exhortation, encouragement and consolation all at the same time.
“Rise, do not be afraid,” Jesus says to Peter, James and John in the Gospel passage for Sunday’s liturgy. The words come just after Jesus is transfigured before their eyes after he took them up on a high mountain. As his glory shines before them “his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.” Moses and Elijah appear with him. The hope of Israel is present.
Moses represents the law or Torah, given to him by God on another mountain, Sinai. Moses had several encounters with the Lord on this height. First when seeing the bush aflame but not burnt. The other was the giving of the law on the tablets of the covenant.
Elijah represents the prophets. He too had an encounter with God on Sinai. You may remember the famous encounter. After Elijah proves the prophets of Baal to be false, King Ahab and his wife Jezebel are enraged and seek his life. Overwhelmed and frightened, he flees and is then directed by God to go to Sinai where God will meet him. After arriving there, Elijah is asleep in a cave.
Suddenly the Lord speaks. He tells Elijah to go out to the top of the mountain where the Lord will pass by. A furious wind that shatters trees comes by, but the Lord is not in the wind. Then an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. Then a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. Finally, there was a “soft whisper of a voice,” at this point Elijah covers his face for the Lord had come (cf. I Kings 19).
Peter speaks to Jesus saying: “If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” God the Father interrupts as a bright cloud casts a shadow over them and from that cloud says: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased, listen to him.”
It is at this point that they fall prostrate and are filled with fear. Then Jesus tells them to get up. He reassures them that they need not be afraid. When they look up, they are alone with Jesus, the beloved Son. God is present and they are not to fear. God is with them. He walks with them and will always be with them.
Hearing this account, as we journey toward Easter, we have an invitation to encounter the divine. We recognize, in Jesus, the Father’s beloved Son. We hear anew the instruction “listen to him.” Jesus is the road to the Father and to life. He completes or fulfills the covenant of old.
During these weeks we are attuned to those preparing to be initiated through baptism, confirmation and holy Communion. We are reminded as well of our own baptism through which we have been united to Christ in his death so that we might share in his resurrection. Jesus is the Way and we walk with him to life. In him is the victory that can never be taken forcibly from us. His is life and this life he has given to us.
At the same time, we recognize that on this journey of life there are many times that fear tries to encroach our path. There are situations that would cause us to worry or have anxiety. Illness or death, isolation or loneliness, financial troubles or employment issues, temptation and sin, peer pressure and social ostracism, worries about the world and country, anxieties over children or grandchildren — these are some of the more common experiences that bring fear.
Jesus recognizes this in the lives of his disciples represented by Peter, James and John. He will have to undergo his passion and death, which will cause great fear, sorrow and anxiety among the disciples, especially those closest to him. He alludes to this when he mentions the “Son of Man” rising from the dead. He has prepared them but the magnitude of the events are overwhelming.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons he asks them to remain silent about the transfiguration — so they will remember later and recall those words: “Rise, do not be afraid.” We are invited to do the same, to remember and to hear those words now spoken to us: “Rise, do not be afraid.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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