do not be terrified!
(fr Cyprian, November 24)
The Vietnamese Martyrs, who we celebrate on November 24th, fall into several groupings: those from the Dominican and Jesuit missionary era of the 17th century, those killed in the politically inspired persecutions of the 19th century (including the priest Andrew Dung Lac whose was beheaded in 1839), and those martyred during the Communist purges of the 20th century. The tortures that they went through were considered to be among the worst in the history of Christian martyrdom, including Christians at one point having the words ta dao, which literally means “left (sinister) religion,” branded on their faces. The Vatican estimates the number of Vietnamese martyrs at between 130,000 and 300,000. A representative sample of 117 martyrs were beatified on four separate occasions early in the 20th century. Pope St. John Paul II decided to canonize them altogether, known and unknown, and gave them a single feast day.
In these last days of the church’s year we are hurtling toward Advent with all kinds of apocalyptic readings, sobering and serious. I think we are in danger of either taking it all too literally on the one hand or of dismissing it completely on the other. It seems to me that there are a few salient features of a healthy attitude toward the end times.
Two things seem to me to be particularly important. First of all, a prophet is not first and foremost someone who predicts the future; the prophet is someone who can predict the present. As Jesus says in Matthew 16:3, a prophet is one who able ‘to interpret the signs of the times.’ “If we stay on this road, this is where we are going to end up.” Prophets then call people back to the right road, to the covenant with God in the Hebrew Scriptures, to the new law of mercy written on our hearts in the gospels.
But along with that comes this exhortation in the gospel passage today (Lk 21:5-11), ‘Do not be terrified!’ Between Jesus and the angels in the gospels we are told about a dozen times not to be afraid, but this is the only time when Jesus says, ‘Do not be terrified!’ That word ‘terrified’ normally only comes up in the gospels when there is some kind of manifestation of the divine taking place, as when the disciples see Jesus walking on the sea, the centurion watching Jesus’ grave when the earthquake takes place, or Zechariah and the shepherds in the infancy narratives of Luke and the apostles at the transfiguration, for example. But in this case Jesus is referring to violent uprisings and false prophets. So I wonder if that word ‘terrified’ is used here as if to say, “This is not a god before whom to be awestruck! This is not divine power to inspire worship!” Because we do, you know; we tend to worship violence. Look how often this word comes up for us now, ‘terror’––terrorism, terrorist attacks, terrorists. And we tend to stand awestruck before the terror, even with our 24-hour news cycle and its obsessive continuous coverage of events such as the terrorist attacks in Paris last week. There is something sublime and attractive even about pure evil. “Do not stand before that in awe as if it were a manifestation of divine power!” And do not let your decisions be based on terror.
Instead of being terrified we are supposed to have hope. It is so deadly important and salient in our day and age and even in the day-to-day exigencies of life. Instead of being terrified we are supposed to have hope! Imagine what kind of surety and virtue it takes to face persecution and martyrdom with equanimity and acceptance like Maximilian Kolbe or Miguel Pro or Andrew Dung-Lac. That’s the kind of hope we’re talking about––fierce hope, a fearless hope. First of all hope in life eternal, yes, hope that there is another life beyond this one. But also hope that somehow the seed of my life that falls into the ground and dies will yield a rich harvest even here––“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the faith,” even if it be merely the martyrdom of selfless love and service. And along with that, hope that my death, like my life, has eternal meaning. And this hope is also the energy behind a prophet, isn’t it? Why would the prophet bother to proclaim the message if there weren’t some hope that things could actually get back on track?
I know I talk about this all the time, but here it is instructive to remember the difference between hope and optimism, both in our own present day-to-day life, as well as in our global situation with our own ‘wars and insurrections, nation rising up against other nations, kingdom against kingdom, earthquakes, famines and plagues.’ Things don’t look too good right now, but, as Cornell West says, “[Hope] doesn’t generate optimism. It just generates this energy to be courageous, to bear witness, to see what the end is going to be. No guarantee, unfinished, open-ended.” Do not be terrified. This is not a cavalier, sunny, detached optimism, nor a naïve or hysterical optimism. This is the hope of the martyrs, a sober deep-seated knowledge that can both read the signs of the times, and yet rest in the surety that all shall be well in the end, and that if all is not well, then it’s not the end yet.
God will be all in all in Christ.
 Cornel West interviewed in Rolling Stone by Robert S. Boynton.