There’s a powerful scene in the movie Dead Man Walking where Sister Helen Prejean sings the hymn “Be Not Afraid” to the young man she befriended on death row. On the night before Matthew Poncelet is scheduled to die, she proclaims God’s tender mercy and compassion by singing:
Be not afraid.
I go before you always;
Come, follow me,
and I will give you rest.
This week’s readings call us to follow Sister Helen’s remarkable example of discipleship. They ask us to proclaim God’s mercy and compassion to a frightened world.
This is a message the world desperately needs to hear. The other day I had a conversation with a young man in the wake of the terrorist attack in Manchester. He spoke of how our world these days is “toxic.” And I can’t blame him for thinking along these lines. There are toxic elements of our human condition that seem to be all the more powerful at this time in history (though we need to also remember that other times in history have been equally toxic). The challenge for Christians, then, is to continue to believe and proclaim that God is with us through it all. The mystery of the Incarnation tells us just this, that God is with us through even in our most desperate moments.
Matthew’s Gospel reminds us to “be not afraid” since our God has counted even the number of hairs on our head. God knows us intimately, our deepest needs and desires. God knows us at our worst and at our best and, yet, is with us always. It is our mission, as disciples, to proclaim this truth to our broken world and our broken selves. That’s what trusting in God’s providence is all about. Providence is not so much about God making sure that our lives our trouble free, but much more about how God is with us through it all — the highs and the lows, the joys and the anguish — of our human condition.
Scripture has an interesting side effect. It reminds us that the human turmoil we face today is not new. If we’re ever tempted to think that terrorism is a new phenomenon, we need only turn to Jeremiah who reminds us that, even in his time, “terror was all around.” The power of his prophetic speech also lay in his claim that the Lord was with him through it all. Today, we too, are called to be such prophets for our troubled world.
Julian of Norwich, a 14th century mystic, put it another way: “All will be well, all manner of thing will be well.” It’s interesting to note that she was born just a few years before the bubonic plague decimated Europe. In the midst of the turmoil of the Middle Ages, Julian, too, was a prophetic voice reminding her peers to “be not afraid.”
The Letter to the Romans reminds us that the “free gift is not like the trespass.” The free gift of God’s providential care will always surpass the power of evil. Gratuitous love always renders sterile the forces of hatred and fear. Our Christian faith calls us to enter ever more fully into the free-flowing river of God’s embrace so that we, in turn, can bring that embrace to those most in need.
Proclaiming that we need not be afraid is a radical, prophetic stance. It’s completely counter-cultural. It flies in the face of the evidence we hear reported on the nightly news. It runs counter to the consumerist message that tells us our security can be found in amassing material wealth. It reminds us that our ultimate security is found in relationship with our loving God, a God who whispers gently in our ear, “Be not afraid, I go before you always . . .”
As we go forward this week, let us be inspired by the mystics, prophets and saints who have gone before us, proclaiming God’s providential care as an antidote to the terrors of our troubled world.
Rompré is the director of Mission and Ministry at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon.