“Hail to Dorothy, the Wicked Witch is dead!” With a simple bucket of water, Dorothy slew the dreaded witch, and it didn’t come a moment too soon. My six-year-old heart was about to beat out of my chest as I watched the scene. But thanks to the strategically located bucket, disaster was evaded—that is, until the next scene. After obtaining the witch’s broomstick, Dorothy strolled into the wizard’s court hoping to find a way home. The enormous head of the wizard responded by hollering orders amid flames, smoke, and peals of thunder. My sister and I scurried for couch pillows in which to bury our faces. Despite the terror, the glory of Oz commanded our attention.

Not since my birth had I experienced such trauma. There would be no bucket large enough for Dorothy to extinguish this foe. But then, when it seemed like all hope was gone, Dorothy’s little dog, Toto, tugged on a curtain. It opened to reveal a white-haired man standing before a control panel. Realizing that he was exposed, the wizard exclaimed, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain; the Great Oz has spoken.” But lo and behold, it wasn’t the Great Oz; it was merely an old man with a microphone. The charade was up, and soon Dorothy’s ruby-red slippers would send her home.

Fear captivates the human mind. And for many of us, this detention is more than a momentary event. In the words of Michel de Montaigne, “My life has been full of terrible misfortune, most of which has never happened.” Fear dominates one’s mental and emotional hardware to the extent that it occupies the horizon of our vision.

Despite biblical admonitions to resist, such as Jesus’ words, “Take heart . . . [and] do not be afraid” (Matt. 14:27) or the insight that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18), it is, nevertheless, quite easy for the tentacles of fear to strangle us. Biblical injunctions such as these often hit our ears like Shakespeare’s famous poem “Fear No More”:

Fear no more the lightening-flash
Nor the all-dreaded thunder-storm;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan:
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.

The poem is remarkable because the title suggests a way out of fear. But if Shakespeare envisions any hope, it’s not in this life. He takes you to the grave, which is literally the last word of the poem.

With death squarely before Him, Jesus endured the cross. He died, and, in doing so, He experienced the most profound terror humanity could imagine.

The New Testament, however, has a different conception of death. For instance, Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Death, it turns out, is not the end. It is rather the entrance to life, the passageway in which the tentacles of fear lose their suffocating grip. Terror, in whatever form it might come, does not greet us as the final word.

Here is an example. One day in July 1505, while riding his horse back to school after a visit home, Martin Luther encountered a fierce thunderstorm. Fast-moving clouds sprinkled the parched road on which he traveled, gently at first, and then more intensely. The sky flashed and rumbled before a lightning bolt struck the ground in a deafening clap near Luther. It touched the earth in such dangerously close proximity that it sent him falling to the ground in terror. Exposed to nature’s fury, Luther cried out: “Help me, Saint Anne! I will become a monk.”

With five hundred years of hindsight, we recognize that Luther’s experience of fear set in motion his journey of faith. To this example, we might add a myriad of men and women who have been dislodged from the world by the unsettling effects of fear. Yet, as significant as our existential turning points may be, they are only a pale reflection of a much greater showdown with terror: Jesus at Gethsemane. Here is how the poet Rosanna Eleanor Leprohon puts it:

Alone in deepest agony, while tired apostles slept;
No one to share His vigil—weep with Him as He wept;
Before Him, clearly rising, the Cross, the dying pain,
And sins of hosts unnumbered whose souls He dies to gain.
Garden of Gethsemane! the God-like lesson, then
Left as a precious token to suff’ring, sorrowing men,
Has breaking hearts oft strengthened, that else, so sharply tried,
Had sunk beneath sin’s burden and in despair had died.

With death squarely before Him, Jesus endured the cross. He died, and, in doing so, He experienced the most profound terror humanity could imagine. The one who had been in perfect fellowship with the Father from eternity past was forsaken. Divine wrath was unleashed with such unmitigated fury that Jesus’ relationship with God was eclipsed by the horror of holiness. Underneath the weight of this condemnation, Jesus cried out, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:45–46).

We rightfully deserve divine judgment. We deserve to be cut off from the loving presence of God. But on account of God’s redemptive grace, that curse has been borne for us. Christ was cast out into the darkness—our darkness. And He was raised from death to the right hand of God’s throne so that now, having our lives embedded in Christ, we need not fear being forsaken by the Father. And since we need not fear this, we need not fear anything.

The Nunc Dimitis

Reformation Women: Marguerite de Navarre