Only One is wise, terrible indeed, seated on his throne–the Lord. He himself has created Wisdom, looked upon her and assessed her and poured her out on all his works to be with humanity as his gift. And he conveyed her to those who love him. The Fear of the Lord is glory and pride and happiness and a crown of joyfulness. The fear of the Lord will gladden the heart, giving happiness and joy and long life. With him who fears the Lord, it will be well in the end and he will be blessed on the day of his death. To fear the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom…
The Book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 1: 9-14a
Clearly, this relationship between Wisdom, beatitude and Fear of the Lord, is a far cry from from the terror of the Hebrew slaves in exodus from Egypt before Mount Sinai. Sirach describes profound respect for God, knowing our human limitations contrasted against God’s perfection; not a cowering terror.
Yet when we come to the New Testament, revealed by Jesus Christ, the image of the invisible God, we find a complete absence of such language. We are told gain and again in the Gospels and Epistles, Fear not or Do not be afraid. The Fear of the Lord is understood by the disciples of Christ in a singular sense: the sense of conversion, transformation, a change of mind and heart–metanoia. What am I saying? Doesn’t conversion involve the release from guilt and fear to approach the good Lord? Yes, but in my conversion I realize that I just don’t barge in arrogantly where angels fear to tread. I pause and realize that I need to change, to behave differently to truly accept God’s magnanimous invitation to draw closer. In response to God’s grace I feel the desire to be more God like; I am not equal to God and I hesitate to remain as I am. I turn back to God to be changed by God.
In the New Testament, this sort of fear is always infused with Christian hope budding from trust in God, rooted in confidence in God’s grace. God will fulfill his promises made by Jesus to his Disciples. His mercy is from age to age on those who fear him, Mary sang. This is a fear infused with confidence in God’s mercy, the experience of God’s mercy.
When you mix human fear with divine mercy what do you get? A whole other thing: through the alchemy of God’s grace it transforms the lead of fear into the gold of humility.
How could St. Benedict not refer to the Fear of God as his first step of humility? The path of humility is the Fear of God imbued with the experience of God’s mercy. Jesus Christ is the perfect expression of that virtue for he is, in St. Paul’s words, the image of the invisible God. In him are wedded human fear with divine mercy; his outpouring of God’s Spirit upon us works that alchemy, transmuting fear and mercy into Christian humility. He has looked on the lowliness of his slave; the Almighty has done great things for me! Holy is his name. His mercy is from age to age upon those who fear him, as we pray with Mary in the Magnificat.
As we enter these final days of Advent, let us embrace the Magnificat of Mary and discover the golden thread of humility running through each and every verse.
From a Chapter Talk by Abbot Robert, 15 December, 2013