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What Can Hold Us Steady?

‘To be able to see, hear, and attend to that within us which is there in the darkness and the silence.’

Markings, Dag Hammarskjöld.

The destabilising, yet deeply human, emotions of fear and anxiety take on different forms in the narrative of Matthew’s Gospel. The anxiety experienced by the disciples often has its basis in their lack of faith. The phrase ‘you of little faith’ or simply oligopistos in Greek, occurs five times in relation to them. In this Gospel, ‘fear’ is also born out of the dread of evil and destruction, ‘loss of moral code of the kingdom.’ But there is also the fear which is akin to awe, the revelation of the numinous: the clear, bright presence of Jesus at the transfiguration, and his living presence before the women at the empty tomb. Jesus often reassures, not only by his words: ‘do not be afraid,’ ‘take courage’, but also in his presence. (See The Book of Gospels by Dorothy Lee).

The charged events of Holy Week are permeated with people’s attempts to restrain chaos. Here, in Matthew’s Gospel, the chief priests conspire to arrest Jesus but not during Passover lest there be a commotion; Judas Iscariot’s character disintegrates from agreeing to betray Jesus, looking for the right opportunity, then later hanging himself; Pilate, when sensing a riot from the crowd can only wash his hands. A madness is brewing which is born out of group fear and anxiety. It finds its culmination at the crucifixion. Having finally been humiliated and taunted by the soldiers at the cross, when Jesus dies the curtain of the temple is torn in two, the earth shook: ‘They were terrified.’

What is it that can hold us steady? Keep us grounded when we experience deep anxiety, impending chaos and the very earth feels to shake under our own feet?

Secretary General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, an unfailing courageous worker for world peace during the Cold War, died in a plane crash over the Congo in 1961. In 2021 a previously unpublished document confirmed there was a death warrant out for him accounting for the plane being shot down. Hammarskjöld kept a notebook found by his bedside after his death. This diary he described as ‘a sort of White Book concerning my negotiations with myself – and with God.’ It reads as an ongoing dialogue between a person’s deeply questioning, reflecting soul and their God and Maker.

Holy Week is a period where we are invited to look into our own hearts. There’s darkness there, as another famous 20th century writer testified to. But if you really attend, stay close to your own honest negotiations with yourself and God, in the space of prayer, you will come to glimpse something much deeper in the darkness. Beyond fear and anxiety too.

Love casts out fear. The narrative in the Gospel of Matthew makes this point clear again and again. The unwavering, steady presence of Christ’s love during Holy Week is astonishing. The Institution of the Lord’s Supper reveals to us a Jesus who is centred, clear eyed about truth, yet tender in surveying the messy emotions and actions of those around him. And honest in recognising more was yet to come. In his humanity he spent time in prayer at Gethsemane negotiating, communing, praying in and with his Father.

‘- Night is drawing nigh-‘

Let me finish what I have been permitted to begin.

Let me give all without any assurance of increase.

The pride of the cup is in the drink, its humility in the serving. What then do its defects matter?

Markings, Dag Hammarskjöld.

Photo: St Peter's Anglican Church, East Melbourne, Palm Sunday 2023


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