During his time as premier of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev denounced many of the atrocities of Joseph Stalin. During one public meeting, as he censured the former Soviet leader, Khrushchev was interrupted by a heckler in the audience. “You were one of Stalin's colleagues! Why didn't you stop him?” Khrushchev jerked toward the heckler and roared, “Who said that?” An agonizing silence followed in which nobody dared to breath. Suddenly Khrushchev replied curtly, “Now you know why.” Fear can be paralyzing.
The last few months have been a time of great fear for a world afflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Even as we were beginning the third week of Lent, the unimaginable happened: everything stopped. Stores and restaurants were closed. City streets looked like ghost towns. Highways were eerily silent. Church doors were locked. Masses were canceled. Millions of people contracted the virus and hundreds of thousands died. Jobs were lost, the economy swooned, people even stooped to fighting over toilet paper and hand sanitizer! Fear clenched the heart of the world in an icy, paralyzing grip, fear of illness, fear of loss, fear of death.
“Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?” It was a question Jesus addressed to his disciples. As their little boat hurtled forward into the impenetrable darkness of a raging storm, as waves crashed over the hull from every side, as lighting split the sky overhead, Jesus asked, “Why are you afraid?” It is the same question Jesus asks of each one of us today. Why do you allow fear to paralyze you? In a deeper, spiritual sense we can distinguish between the felt emotion of fear and our response to that emotion. We cannot help feeling afraid, but we can determine how we respond to that fear. We can become paralyzed or we can entrust ourselves confidently to the loving plan of God. In our fear, there is a question.
The most frequently repeated phrase in the Bible, appearing exactly 365 times, is “Do not be afraid.” When newly elected Pope St. John Paul II stepped to the ambo in the Sistine Chapel to deliver his first homily as pope, he began with the words, “Be not afraid!” As Pope Francis celebrated the Easter Vigil Mass in an empty St. Peter’s Basilica, he urged those watching through livestream: “Do not be afraid, do not yield to fear.”
At the heart of our fear, at the heart of this current pandemic, is a question Jesus addresses to the heart of humanity: “Do you trust in me?” Because even as the world seems to be falling apart around us, even as the waves come crashing down upon our little boats, even as the thunder roars overhead in the darkness, only one thing matters. Is Jesus in the boat with us? Is the Lord at the center of our lives? If he is, there is nothing to fear in the face of the storm. So Jesus invites us: “Be still.”