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Angela Tilby: Fear and anxiety are not the same    

09 April 2020


A recreation of the open tomb

A recreation of the open tomb

IF I were preaching this Easter Day, I would preach on Mark 16.8, the women at the tomb, and particularly on the final words, “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. . .”

It’s often pointed out that the Greek of this sentence ends with the preposition “for. . .”, as though the sentence has been left unfinished, either accidentally or deliberately. Most of the ancient authorities end the book in this abrupt way. The more upbeat short and long endings of Mark are not likely to be original.

So, Mark’s Gospel ends in fear, which seems appropriate this fear-filled Easter. We are afraid in ways that are unfamiliar. I am afraid of joggers, of virus remnants on surfaces, of what is happening in ICUs round the country, of the effect on our economy, our politics, our public life, and our poor deserted churches, which seem to me to send a bleak message that God really has abandoned us. But, if I look through this list of fears, I realise that some of them, at least, are not reasonable fears, but anxieties, mostly generated from within.

Long before the Covid-19 hit us, anxiety was a serious mental-health problem. I am an anxious person myself, but I have come to think that fear and anxiety are different. For me, anxiety is a basic distrust in reality, an abiding conviction that, if anything can go wrong, it will. It is often based on past traumas. It is being afraid of being afraid.

Genuine fear, though, is something more grounded. Genuine fear assumes that reality should be benign and is shocked when suddenly it isn’t. I have been fascinated to discover that some chronically anxious people report that they are less anxious than usual in our current crisis. Faced with a real threat, they became quite cool. They can distinguish the real from the unreal.

The Resurrection Gospel is addressed to our fears, not our anxieties. Our fear of death, our fear of suffering, our fear the future, our fear of God. These are reasonable fears. They are part of the human condition. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, as is learning to live within limits, learning not to live from fantasy, and to be humble.

It is to our fears that Easter breaks in as Good News, as in Stuart Townend’s wonderful “Resurrection Hymn”: “Death is dead, love has won, Christ has conquered.” Mark’s Gospel stops short of the good news of the Resurrection, but, in his enigmatic account, he slips in the detail that, even as the women set out for the tomb, the sun has already risen. We are meant to spot the clue. The tomb is empty. Anxieties are something we must learn to sit light to, but Easter speaks to our fear.

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