Every morning, members of the Church throughout the world pray the Canticle of Zechariah, the Benedictus, praising God for the gift of salvation in Christ that was signaled in the birth of Zechariah’s son, John the Baptist:
“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, / for he has visited and brought redemption to his people” (Luke 1:68). God has saved us “from the hand of enemies,” so that “without fear we might worship him in holiness and righteousness / before him all our days” (Luke 1:74-75).
We might wonder who the enemies are and what is the fear. Illumination is provided by a passage in the Letter to the Hebrews that says that by his death, Jesus “destroy[ed] the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,” in order to “free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life” (Hebrews 2:14, 15). These are strong words. How does fear of death make us slaves? The letter isn’t speaking here of the natural fear of death that we all have, which has its good side in making us alert to danger and encouraging us to take care of the life God has given us.
The fear of death in this biblical passage has a deeper meaning. It means fear of the emptiness and darkness that come with annihilation, the fear of ceasing to exist as a person. An animal cannot experience this fear of death, but only an intelligent being with self-awareness and the ability to think about the future. Jesus Christ, by destroying the power of this ultimate death, has freed us from the inner slavery that makes us live without hope. Now we can face danger, disease, and even physical death with interior freedom, confident that our real life cannot be destroyed, and we will live on.
Part of this fear of ultimate death is the fear of being eternally alone, not counting or not relating. The beauty of Christ’s victory over death is that as we pass to life beyond this world, we continue in relation to those we have known in this life, both those who have already died and those who are still living. Those of us who are still in this life are supported by the knowledge that we are still in communion with those who have gone before us.
For those still bound by the slavery of this ultimate fear, we are terribly insecure and doomed to devoting all our energy to building the barricades and locking the doors. No matter how secure we become on the outside by amassing money, property, or power, until we are free from the fear of death, we will always be insecure interiorly.
There are legitimate forms of insurance for protection of life, health, and property, but without interior freedom, an exaggerated drive for security can destroy the most important things we want to protect: our relationships, our values, and even our faith. “Those who enjoy life most,” said Pope Francis in The Joy of the Gospel, “are those who leave security on the shore and become excited by the mission of communicating life to others” (section 10). But the self-protection that comes with the fear of death creates suspicion, causing us to see others as obstacles, and rather than communicating life, it is “death-dealing” (in our time leading ever more to the toleration of abortion and euthanasia), and robs us of all joy and peace. Jesus has liberated us from this slavery and offered us the freedom of the children of God. The wonderful peace this brings is described poetically at the end of the Benedictus, which can set the tone as we begin the day:
Because of the tender mercy of our God by which the daybreak from on high will visit us to shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow, to guide our feet into the path of peace. (Luke 1:78-79)
A selection from Is God in My Top Ten: Meditations for a Deeper Life in Christ, by Fr. Jerome Kodell, OSM. (The Word Among Us Press, 2018). Available at wau.org/books