Do Not Be Afraid!

by the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool and Chair of the Ozanne Foundation

my-name-is-paul

People cope with anxiety in different ways. For Christians, the hope and the truth of our faith gives us resources to cope. And the fact that the Coronavirus has struck at this time of the year can be and should be a blessing to those who believe in the resurrection.

However faith in the resurrection is a delicate and fragile thing. It can easily be broken, or at least bent out of shape, by anxiety.

So for example the gift of life in Jesus was received by his disciples as an astonishing and frightening surprise. It’s a theme of the gospels that, despite the fact that Jesus spoke about his resurrection before he died, nobody got what he was on about. And so the astonishment and joy of the disciples is tinged, and made more human, by their fear and embarrassment at not having believed what they were so clearly told. Luke’s story of the road to Emmaus clearly illustrates the blindness that anxiety can cast over the eyes of people of faith. The two disciples are “downcast”, and so they fail to recognise the living One before their eyes (Luke 24:17).

The risk can be different for those of us who have been Christians for a while. We know about the victory of Jesus. We know that the blessedness of Easter flows from a reversal – light reversing darkness, victory reversing defeat, life reversing death. We are not surprised when Easter comes. We expect life. When these certainties and expectations bump up against anxiety, for example the anxiety caused by a pandemic, the resulting tone can be harsh.

I am not only referring to magical thinking, seen for example in the United States among Christians who continue to meet together, believing that Jesus’ blood will see off the virus immediately in their case. Nor am I thinking only of the view that I’ve seen expressed in the US and in Europe among deeply traditional Catholic Christians – that one consequence of the doctrine of transubstantiation is that the blessed and transformed bread and wine cannot possibly contain, or be a vector for, the virus. These forms of magical thinking are profoundly dangerous, though mercifully pretty rare.

The more common dynamic is beautifully captured by Hilary Ison, drawing in the previous Via Media post from the work of the “Tragedy and Congregations” project:

Community responses to disaster typically show a ‘heroic phase’, full of energy and self-sacrifice, which burns itself out and is followed by a ‘disillusionment phase’, which may contain much mutual blame and suspicion. Only as the disillusionment phase loses its force can realistic, hopeful re-making take place.

The persistent emphasis of our Lord Jesus was not that his followers should surpass one another in being spectacular in heroism or holiness, but that we should not be afraid. So we are led to an inner place from which we may live a non-anxious life – without heroism, and yet without disillusion, ready to re-make the world. It does not seem particularly glamorous, or exceptional, simply to live our lives without anxiety. But it seems to me that this is our calling at this time. A Church that heeds this command is quietly unafraid; fundamentally marked by the spirit of its Lord. And God knows, to be quietly unafraid is a big ask in these days.

Glimpses of non-anxious living may be seen in many places. As an example from outside the Church of what it might mean, I was challenged and delighted by a recent interview with David Hockney. I’ve always felt an affinity with this artist, who like me is a Yorkshireman and a Bradford lad. Hockney is a much-beloved artist because of his truthfulness; a gay man who has lived unafraid as he was created, and who for decades has painted the world as he has seen it, carefully and beautifully and accurately. A few days ago he said this:

“We have lost touch with nature rather foolishly as we are a part of it, not outside it. This will in time be over and then what? What have we learned? I am 83 years old, I will die. The cause of death is birth… the source of art is love.”

David Hockney

The faith of Christians is built on Jesus Christ, who saved us on the Cross and who was raised to life at Easter. He it is whom I proclaim. But if I had to express the outworking of that faith in an attitude to the world – to express the non-anxious life – in words that did not mention Jesus, I could do a good deal worse than those words of Hockney.

And if I ever reach the age of 83 – and indeed now, when I’m 66 – I hope that this will be my approach. That this approach, built on the faith in Jesus that I have received as a gift, will  issue in a non-anxious life. That I might be truthful, and speak simply, and not fear death, and see love at the root of things.

And as we move into Eastertide, and as the number of cases of the virus and the number of deaths continues to rise, I hope that I may resist anxiety as my Lord commanded me to do, and that I may live in hope, and may love my neighbour in ways that will help them first. In that spirit I wish you all a blessed Easter. Not necessarily a happy one, not for so many of us; no. But in the faith of Christ a blessed one nonetheless; one in which we may live, unafraid, in the One who loves us.

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