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Fearful, yet overjoyed

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, April 12, 2007

How can fear and joy exist in the human heart at the same time?

St. Matthew recalls that, on the first Easter, Mary Magdalene and another woman approach the tomb of Jesus. There, an angel tells them that their friend is not among the dead. They should return to their homes in Galilee, where they will see him again. So, they leave, “fearful, yet overjoyed.” A contradiction in emotions?

But, perhaps, we understand. Perhaps each of us has been here before. Perhaps, the four men preparing for Ordination as Holy Cross priests this Saturday understand. Even as I write this question, I recall the night before my own Ordination, three years ago next week. I felt that night like I imagine my brother and his wife felt the night before their wedding, or the moments before their first child was born. I stood on the threshold of a future that was at once very intimately known, and yet, simultaneously, filled with mystery.

It’s that feeling that you’ve been waiting for this day forever. And, at the same time, there persists a nagging whisper: “Another day to think this over wouldn’t kill me.” But then, my family presents me with my chalice. My brother sees his fiancée walk towards him down the aisle. Their baby exhales the first cry of new life. And all we can feel is … joy. We are taken up into something so much bigger than we – a deep realization that the mystery of God’s plan for our life is upon us, and, despite what we don’t know about it, it is good. It is very good.

“Fearful, yet overjoyed.” The two women at Jesus’ tomb – these first witnesses to Christ’s resurrection – have been where we sometimes find ourselves. These women, like any of us preparing to give our lives away to another – like the four who will give their lives in priesthood this Saturday – made their way to a fearful, but ultimately joyous, place.

In the women’s case, it is the tomb of their friend, surely not the expected destination when they first answered Jesus’ call. Then, suddenly – mysterious news, like an earthquake beneath their feet. The ground beneath them shifts, and a truth begins to dawn, even beyond what the women are able to comprehend.

What they thought was here is not here. And what is here is beyond their wildest imagination. You can’t even take it all in, suggests the angel, so for now, just go home. And there, in your daily life, you will come to understand.

And so they went – “fearful, yet overjoyed.”

My very first memory after being ordained is the oddest memory. After the bishop ordained my classmates and me, we all knelt on the top step of the sanctuary, and our brother priests, one by one, laid their hands upon our heads, in the manner of the first apostles.

Of course, it was beautiful … but there were a couple hundred priests and it took close to 45 minutes! As I knelt on the marble step, I began to sweat. My mouth dried up. I got dizzy from thirst.

Finally, we got up, and were waved into a back chapel, and there was the most beautiful first sight I could ever hope for as a priest – ice cold bottled water, which I guzzled so quickly that I got the most pleasant headache of my life!

This odd memory has always stayed with me. It reminds me that most things, post-Ordination, don’t change. You wake up Sunday with the same limitations you went to sleep with on Saturday. All your thirsts remain – your thirst for friendship, your thirst for a more virtuous life, your thirst to be to be part of a family – none of your human thirsts disappear.

And yet, at the same time, this presence of water …

A week after my Ordination, I lowered Peyton Stephens, four months old, into the baptismal font at Holy Redeemer Parish in Portland, Ore. As I held him up, and the congregation welcomed him into the Church, and I watched that water drip off his head and shoulders, I began to realize that water would never be the same again. Nor would bread, nor wine, nor oil, nor anything else.

As a Christian, and perhaps as a priest in a particularly humbling way, water changes forever. Even as you continue to thirst for it, you begin to bless and baptize with it. You mix it with wine, and drink and share it, as Christ’s own blood. What was everyday bread becomes the food of people’s deepest hunger – you can see it in their eyes. Oil becomes the bath water of the sick.

To be ordained a priest is to walk to the tomb of the Resurrected Christ – simultaneously in fear and joy, for here the known and the unknown meet. Here the tomb will never again be just a tomb, and water will never again be just water.

So, after all, it does make sense – fear and joy existing simultaneously. It’s just that, like the reality of being wed to another, like the reality of creating new life, the reality of becoming a priest is too much to bear all at once. And so, we are told, “Just go home. Live your promises – in fear, in joy. Go back to Galilee.”

Where everything is as it always was, and where nothing will ever be the same again.

This week’s FaithPoint is written by Father Lou Delfra, from the department of Bible Studies in Campus Ministry. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.