“Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God…” (Is 35: 3-4)
Every liturgical year just before the season of Advent, the Church makes its annual attempt to remind the people of God of the “four last things”: death, judgment, heaven and hell. One way to measure the success of this effort of preaching and teaching of the four last things is to ask ourselves a follow-up question: Have we effectively instilled in the people a clear enough sense of feebleness, weakness, and trepidation sufficient to bring about a palpable relief and recovery during Advent?
It is fair to say that many in the Church have lost a proper religious awareness of the fearful. In fact, many of our own bishops and theologians have come to dismiss the fearful power of God and to discount hell entirely as fairy-tale or biblical allegory, too outdated for modern consideration. While regular reminders of the reality of hell will always be well-advised as a bulwark against temptation, it is also true that we must not see the fear of the Lord solely as a prevention against sin. We must also see it as a promotion toward virtue – as a method for spiritual progress.
The sage of the Book of Proverbs shows great understanding of this notion by declaring the fear of the Lord to be the beginning of wisdom (Prov 1:7). Further, the prophet Isaiah declares the fear of the Lord to be a gift of the Holy Spirit (Is 11:2) and of such great spiritual import that it is the virtual “delight” of the Messiah (Is 11:3). Thus for the Christian, the fear of the Lord is not only the beginning of wisdom but also its fulfilment, since what begins naturally in man as fear of punishment due to vice, becomes instead fear of offending the God we love due to virtue. Further, Isaiah’s reference to feebleness, etc. in the quotation above helps us to understand that we are to put away the fears of this world so that we may approach the fear of the Lord in proper humility and trust.
Humility moving one to trust is displayed nowhere more profoundly than in the Blessed Virgin Mary. Hence, we are raising her up as our Advent guide in the fear of the Lord. In keeping with this proposition we place on our bulletin cover for this 3rd Sunday in Advent a work by the Baroque painter Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato entitled The Virgin in Prayer (1650) now held in the National Gallery, London. Sassoferrato was actually the town Giovanni lived in which was about equidistant from the artistic powerhouses of Florence and Rome. The baroque of Giovanni appears subdued because of his particular interest in the classical work of Raphael, which made Giovanni’s works cherished as silent, devotional images during the Counter Reformation.
Here we see Mary, statuesque, in deep prayerful reflection. Let us say that this is the moment when the angel had just departed after offering her the good news and counseling her to accept it without trepidation (Lk 1:30). No doubt Mary found favor with God because she was full of the grace of the fear of the Lord, for as Mary herself declares: God “has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness” and named her “blessed” (Lk 1:48).
-Steve Guillotte, Director of Pastoral Services