Fight, Flight, Freeze

This homily was given at Mater Dolorosa Catholic Church, South San Francisco, CA on the Second Sunday in Advent, December 4, 2022. The audio is available here.


Fear usually causes one of three reactions: fight, flight, or freeze.

Whether it’s a lion coming after you on the Serengeti or a call from your mom, who you’ve been avoiding, we tend to react in the same way.

Some of us get fired up right away, ready to fight back and defend ourselves.

Others run from danger. 

We see the name on caller ID and send it straight to voicemail.

“I’ll deal with them … later.” 

And others freeze up.

Sometimes, fear has so much power over us that we just stand there like a tree, rooted in place, powerless and paralyzed.

We feel afraid whenever we’re unsafe, whether that’s from physical danger, or emotional or moral danger that threatens our well-being.

It makes no difference to our nervous system; our bodies don’t distinguish between the prowling lion and the scary phone call.

It just perceives them both as threats and triggers the fear response.

And God designed our bodies this way to protect us from danger.

The problem is that sometimes, we perceive situations that aren’t really dangerous to us as a threat … and we respond accordingly.

Some of us fear God as a threat.

We’re afraid He’s going to punish us, that He’s not trustworthy, that He’ll abuse His power over us and reject us if He sees what we’re really like.

So we may fight against God by sinning to keep Him at arm’s length…

Or we fly from God, avoiding prayer, not going to Mass…

Or we might freeze up in His presence, our hearts going cold and numb without knowing why.

Fight, flight, freeze…

One response that we don’t typically have when we’re afraid is delight.

Yet, confusingly, that’s what today’s prophecy says about Jesus: “His delight shall be the fear of the Lord.”

Clearly, this is a different kind of fear than we’re used to.

But if you’ve ever stood on the edge of a cliff, or at the top of a raging waterfall, or a mountain peak overlooking the wide world spread out below, you may have tasted something of this other kind of fear.

If you’ve had a real, overpowering experience of God, in prayer, or at some difficult moment in your life, then you know it as well.

This is a holy fear, produced, not by danger and feeling unsafe, but by wonder and awe and love … and we can tell the difference at once by the kind of fruit it bears in our souls.

It’s not a fear that triggers us to fight or flight or freeze; this fear awakens something deep down within our hearts, making us feel alive, very small yet part of something great.

It produces peace, freedom, confidence, delight.

Jesus is not afraid of His Father, not the way we sometimes are.

Jesus gazes on the face of His Father with wonder and awe and love.

His delight is in the holy fear of the Father because He knows His Father’s heart; He knows Him, and He loves Him, and so He strives to please Him, never doing anything that would hurt His heart.

Jesus walked this earth the freest, most whole-hearted man who ever lived, because He lived at every moment in the holy fear of God. 

Take a good, hard look at our own hearts.

Which kind of fear do I have of God?

Look at the fruits in our own lives: is there sin, shame, coldness of heart, avoiding God, hiding from God … or delighting in God, seeking His face, striving to please Him, avoiding anything that might hurt His heart?

The first kind of fear, unholy fear, comes from a distorted image of the Father, from lies we have come to believe about Him.

So today, we repent of the lies we have believed about the Father…

And as we receive Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, we ask Him to show us the Father’s face and the truth of the Father’s heart He knows so well.

“Now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”

“Come, let us set things right,” says the Lord.

As we repent of the lies we have believed and return to the Father, we find that unholy fear loses its grip on us, and we begin to delight, like Jesus, in the holy fear of the Lord, the wonder and awe and love of God.

We begin to experience what it is to walk this earth in freedom and whole-hearted confidence as sons and daughters of the Most High God.

And on the last day, at His glorious and second coming, when “the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord, as water covers the sea,” we will not run and hide our faces…

We shall rejoice with Jesus and all the saints in the all-holy presence of God, for we know His heart, and He knows us, always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

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