Happy Ascension Sunday to all my Canadian readers/7th Sunday of Easter to other readers! It’s too bad the Church gets a bit wonky this time of year with different countries moving feasts around to different days. Not a great situation in my view, and a mistake to have moved Ascension like this.
But that’s not what I want to write about. We are now a full week from Pentecost Sunday, the great feast of the Church year after Easter and Christmas. And it is good to prepare for this feast and to earnestly pray for the coming of the Spirit anew upon Church and world—we need it so badly.
One of the traditional ways of stirring up our desire for a new Pentecost and our openness to the Holy Spirit is to consider the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, these special graces given by God to us in baptism, strengthened in confirmation, that allow us even now to begin living a divine life in our redeemed humanity. So this week on the blog I will suspend my usual blogging and write each day on one of the seven gifts and what it means.
First we have the gift of fear of the Lord. This is the least understood of all the gifts; people still quickly assume it means we are to be afraid of God, afraid of the punishing wrath of the Almighty and all that. Why would that be a gift of the Holy Spirit? What would that have to do with living a divine life in our redeemed humanity?
That kind of fear is not the gift of fear. That is a servile fear—the fear of punishment. It is a low and very imperfect way of relating to God. The holy fear of the Lord is filial fear—the fear that comes from love of God as Father.
In other words, it is not that we see God as the vengeful God who destroys us if we don’t measure up. Rather we see God rightly, through the gift of the Spirit, as our Father in heaven who loves us and who has done all things to raise us to life with Him. We see the utter goodness of God, his perfect justice and mercy together. And from this, we have a horror, a true and genuine dread, of destroying our communion with Him.
Fear of the Lord, then, is fear of sin, and fear of our own terrible human capacity to sin and to turn away from Him. This dreadful weakness of our wounded human nature by which we can in a heartbeat deny God, betray Him, act as if all that we believe is naught and that He does not exist. Fear of the Lord of course is driven by our knowledge that we are free creatures who actually can break this communion, and break it forever if we choose.
So it is a real fear, but not a fear of God precisely, but a fear that comes from God and our loving communion with Him. This is why it is a gift of the Holy Spirit and not just some reasoned position we can come to. Lengthy treatises can be written—indeed have been—on the goodness and beauty of God and the ugliness and horror of sin. But lengthy treatises do not give us the fear of the Lord we need to actually hate sin and cling to God for dear life.
It is the Holy Spirit who does this in us, as it is the Holy Spirit whose first work in us is to make us sharers in the Son’s love of the Father, who draws us into the life of the Trinity and makes us actually believers in all the things we read in the Gospels. It is all just words on a page, or pixels on a screen, until the Spirit descends upon us and gives us the gift of faith.
This gift and this life are ours, but we can reject them, we can lose them. This is the fundamental conviction the Spirit gives us which is the origin of holy fear, holy dread. And from this, then, comes our whole specific moral life and all its practical considerations—avoiding temptations, near occasions of sin, practicing relevant virtues, filling our minds and hearts with good and worthy content, vigilance regarding small bad habits that can grow quickly into major moral disasters.
All of that can be a bit dreary and tedious unless it is being driven by the gift of holy fear—the apprehension of the beauty, the wonder, the majesty, the splendour of God and His love for us, the assuredness that He truly offers us a share in this splendour, a place in His heart, and the sobering awareness that we are indeed free to say no to this, free (by grace) to say yes to it. All of that makes the moral life and its discipline a glorious adventure, a battle, a quest, a fight to be won and not just a drudgery to be endured.
So let’s pray for the gift of holy fear today, so we can win the battle today, however it comes to us. Onward Christian soldiers!