The readings this week introduce us to a strange theme that is common throughout the scriptures: the fear of being in the presence of God. In the first reading Moses recounts that a certain point in their journey through the desert, the Israelites expressed the fear that they might die at the sound of the Lord’s voice or the demonstration of his presence. Similarly, the Gospel relays the store of a man “with an unclean spirit” expressing fear and angst upon coming into the presence of Jesus. Many of the prophets throughout the Old Testament express a similar fear of “seeing the face of God” worrying that doing so would lead to their death. What is at work here? Why would anyone want to avoid God? Why would seeing the face of God cause death? It’s a question that reveals the complex forces that motivate us as human beings. On one hand we each want to be good and to experience goodness, truth, and beauty. On the other hand, coming into contact with those who possess a perfection that we lack causes insecurities and self-doubt to rise to the surface. We want to be free of our own flaws without having to look at them – much as one turns away from looking at the doctor’s needle, even as it delivers medicine that we need. It is difficult to look at the perfection of God because it shows our imperfections and the ways that we must “die to ourselves.” Anyone who has tried to break free from a negative behavior knows that the beginning is difficult and is primarily experienced as a deprivation. But, there is a strange power hidden within the realization that we are afraid to look at what is flawed within us. The realization functions like a feedback loop: we look away from those parts of ourselves of which we are afraid, but looking away only serves to confirm their danger and increase their power. There is a complimentary dimension, however: Choosing to look at our imperfections despite our fear means that we have power over them. Running away increases fear and helplessness, but running toward increases strength and courage. So often we are afraid to really encounter Jesus – in the quiet of prayer or in the sacrament of confession – because we are not yet perfect. But, God doesn’t love us because we’re perfect; he loves us because he is perfect. With that, everything shifts. We find not only courage and strength, but God’s love and grace.
With prayers and best wishes,
Fr. Justin (Our Lady of the Presentation Parish)