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And They Followed Jesus, Amazed and Afraid: A Reflection on the Call to Joyful Reverence

May 30, 2013

053013The Gospel from Wednesday of this week describes well a spiritual gift to be sought. It is from Mark 10:32 and says,

The disciples were on the way, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus went ahead of them. They were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.

Fr. Robert Barron Titles one of the Episodes in his Catholicism Series, “Amazed and Afraid” and he does a wonderful job applying it that section. My Purpose here is more modest and must be more brief, but I speak to the same balance that Fr. Barron sets forth.

We need to be both amazed and afraid, and the proper balance. Theologians have in the past described  the balance with Latin phrase fascinosum et temendum.  It is phrase that speaks of reverent bowing and Holy Fear before the Holy One who draws me close  bids me to seek His face.

Fascinosum is where we get the word fascinating. It refers to something that calls to me, draws me, peaks my interest, something that strongly attracts and inspires reverence.

Tremendum is where we get the word tremendous. It refers to something awesome; something overwhelming and too big to comprehend or grasp. Hence we draw back in a kind of reverential fear mixed with a kind of bewilderment. And we feel small before the tremendous.

And these words well describe the proper state of the human person before the mystery of God: drawn by God’s inexorable beauty yet compelled to fall prostrate before His awesome majesty. Scripture speaks of this experience in many places. Here are but a few:

  1. I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, with the train of his garment filling the temple. Seraphim were stationed above; each of them had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two they veiled their feet, and with two they hovered aloft. “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts!” they cried one to the other. “All the earth is filled with his glory!” At the sound of that cry, the frame of the door shook and the house was filled with smoke. And then I said, “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” Then one of the Seraphim flew to me, holding an ember which he had taken with tongs from the altar. He touched my mouth with it. “See,” he said, “now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged.” (Isaiah 6:1-5) And so Isaiah is draw and captivated by the beauty and glory he sees (fascinosum) but is then bewildered, fearful and alarmed at his unworthiness (Tremendum).
  2. And Jesus was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” (Matt 17:1-6) Yes! It is good to be here (fascinosum) but soon enough, they fall to their faces and are very much afraid (tremendum)
  3. I [John] saw seven gold lampstands and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, wearing an ankle-length robe, with a gold sash around his chest. The hair of his head was as white as white wool or as snow, and his eyes were like a fiery flame. His feet were like polished brass refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing water. In his right hand he held seven stars. A sharp two-edged sword came out of his mouth, and his face shone like the sun at its brightest. When I caught sight of him, I fell down at his feet as though dead. He touched me with his right hand and said, “Do not be afraid. I am the first and the last, the one who lives. (Rev 1:15-17) Such a vision! But he falls down in fear!

Note the pattern of these theophanies: They are drawn by God and behold his beauty (fascinosum), they instinctively fall prostrate, and need to be reassured by God (tremendum). It is an awesome thing to fall into the hands of a living God! (Heb 10:31).

The most interesting passage to me is the third one involving John the Beloved. This is the same John who, at the Last Supper, was perfectly capable of leaning back on the Lord’s shoulder to ask him a question. Yet now, as he beholds the full glory of Christ in the heavenly realm, he falls to his face. The Lord’s glory is fully unveiled here and John, who appreciates the beauty and describes it to us is ultimately compelled to fall down.

We have come through an era that has trivialized God in many ways. Perhaps it was an over correction to a more severe time of the 1950s when any misstep of ours could result in a quick trip to hell if we didn’t get to confession immediately. Mortal sin was understood only objectively by many in those days and by God, even if there were two feet of snow on the ground and you missed Church, your were in sin and had to get to confession asap. Fear was a strong motivator for many in those days.

But we over corrected and by the 1970s the usual notion was that God didn’t seem to care what we did. He was rendered quite “harmless” actually and it seemed that his main purpose was to affirm us.

As for Jesus, gone was the unrelenting and uncompromising prophet of the Scriptures, only to replaced by a kind of harmless hippie version, or, for others, a “Mr Rogers,” or “Buddy Jesus” version who just went about saying nice things. The Jesus who cleansed the Temple, rebuked unbelief, demanded first place in our life, insisted on the cross, warned of coming judgement and hell, and spoke with such authority that even the guards sent to arrest him came back empty-handed saying “no one has ever spoken like that man”, this Jesus was no where to be found by the 1970s

And thus we have needed a return to the balance that fascinosum et tremendum offers. Surely we sense a deep desire for God, we are drawn to him in all his beauty and glory. But we are encountering God here, and we are but creatures. A reverential fear is appropriate for the Father and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It may well be that God will reassure us, but our instinct to tremendum is a proper and biblical one. The Biblical saints knew both fascinosum and tremendum and they show us what a true encounter with God includes.

This does not mean that our liturgies need be somber, for reverence and joy can occupy the same heart. But in the end, it is God whom we worship and falling to our knees is wholly appropriate. Seeking the necessary purification and striving for the holiness without which no one will see God (Heb 12:14) is appropriate.

Make your journey with Christ as one who is amazed and afraid. Do not trivialize him. He is savior, he is our brother, he loves us, but he is also the Lord, He is God and is deepest reverence and holy fear is due him. Make your journey in  fascinosum et tremendum!

Here’s a video where Cardinal “Glitch” gets the balance a little wrong:

Maybe this is a little closer to where we need to be:

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Comments (8)

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  1. Robertlifelongcatholic says:

    I noticed in the movie Dogma that Chris Rock plays Rufus, the 13th apostle and informs us that Christ was black. This is obviously what you are up against when you go evangelizing in the hood, people who use Hollywood as their source for religious historical reference.

  2. Thomas F. Gallagher says:

    What a great artist the late George Carlin was, and what a sadly fallen-away Catholic. I say a prayer today for the repose of his soul. I recall fondly the comedy riff in which he told us he had been taught by the good sisters at Our Lady of Perpetual Motion parochial school. Carlin’s vision of the Catholicism he grew up with was often skewed, but not in this “Catholicism Wow!” video. Here a great artist speaks truth as only great artists can, brilliantly capturing everything that was wrong with the post-Vatican II American Church. The “hip” clergyman, trying and failing to speak the language of the contemporary street, as some of our clergy still try to do. The public-relations approach to language and communication, which has now metastasized in the organizational structure of dioceses, getting worse day by day. The false sense of reassurance about salvation–no mention in the 70s and 80s of Mortal Sin, of the need for awe before God, of the need for repentance, no mention of the call of the Jesus who offers us not fun and games but a Cross. Oh Lord Jesus, forgive us for our silly efforts to “read the culture” and get in step with a world which was becoming strikingly more pagan in the 1960s and 70s, just at the moment when Catholic thinkers were trying so eagerly to embrace it. Remind us, Lord, that your disciples are in the world but not of it. Give us the grace to long for a far better World to come.

  3. Donna says:

    This is surely a message to me from the Holy Spirit! It was only just last night, as I was driving to the store and noticing a gorgeous sunset when I thought, “God, You are amazing.” I was immediately struck by the fact that these are words I rarely utter outside of my formal prayers, and that this was pretty sad, because God truly is amazing. I also noticed how wonderful it feels to be made aware of God’s awesomeness and to actually feel amazed.

  4. RichardGTC says:

    “Perhaps it was an over correction to a more severe time of the 1950s when any misstep of ours could result in a quick trip to hell if we didn’t get to confession immediately.”–If by “misstep” you mean an objectively mortal sin, then I am still that way and intend to stay that way, God willing.

    “For he is found by them that tempt him not: and he sheweth himself to them that have faith in him.” Wisd. 1:2

  5. TomD says:

    “Make your journey with Christ as one who is amazed and afraid. Do not trivialize him. He is savior, he is our brother, he loves us, but he is also the Lord, He is God and is deepest reverence and holy fear is due him. Make your journey in fascinosum et tremendum!”

    This is so right!!! And as with so many aspects of the faith today, we tend to emphasize one pole of an either-or duality, rather than both poles of the both-and. This is a very human response when confronted with mystery and the challenges that that provides for us. Love the sinner, hate the sin . . . another duality that requires BOTH, not the modern tendency to chose either one or the other.

    Father, your reference to liturgy and the need to approach Christ as both amazed and afraid is particularly appropriate. The fear is a reverence, not an irrational “fear” . . . the reverential fear that you speak of. Today, we seem to want, and to need, to have a “nice” Mass, but the balance you speak of between joy and reverence is the proper disposition for worship.

    Father, would you agree that, as a general rule, the EF is unbalanced in the reverence direction, while the OF is unbalanced in the “joy” direction (although I have experienced some pretty joyless OF Masses!)?

  6. greg walek says:

    Msgr. Pope,

    Your comments about the Apostle John were very interesting. To get a better idea of the concept of “amazed and afraid”, let’s put ourselves as the Apostle John.
    Here is John who traveled with Our Lord, who witness His miracles, who was present at the last supper, who was at the foot of the cross, and who received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Now in a vision of Heaven, we see Jesus (whom we love dearly), and the first thing we do is “fall down to his feet as though dead”. Now quickly compare this to when Mary was at Jesus’s tomb and saw Jesus; she reached out to touch him, to be with him. Both John and Mary are amazed at seeing Jesus, but John witnesses Jesus’s Glory, and is immediately humbled to where all he can do is “fall down to his feet as though dead”. He is both amazed and afraid.

  7. Dave Pair says:

    You just lost another reader

    • Diane Peterson says:

      You gained a new reader today! A hearty “amen” to fascinosum et temendum. Having gone through the 70’s in high school and college, it was His glorious presence that drew me–and now some 35 years later–I’m wonderfully “amazed and afraid”.