A sermon preached by the Rev’d Daniel Lloyd at Solemn Evensong, Blackfriars, Oxford, Wednesday 29th February 2012:
‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.’ (Phil. 2:12-13)
We have been told in ancient tales many marvels of famous heroes, of mighty toil, joys, and high festivities, of weeping and wailing, and the fighting of bold warriors – of such things you can now hear wonders unending! In the land of the Burgundians there grew up a maiden of high lineage, so fair that none in any land could be fairer. Her name was Kriemhild […] She was in the care of three great and noble kings, the renowned warriors Gunther and Gernot, and young Giselher, a splendid knight, and she was sister to these princes who had charge of her. These lords were of high birth, magnanimous, strong, and brave beyond measure, altogether rare warriors. […] They held sway at Worms beside the Rhine, and were served in high honour by many proud knights.’
So begins the Nibelungenlied, which the translator of the foregoing extract, Arthur Hatto, informs us is surpassed as heroic epic ‘only by the Iliad of Homer’. I have, you will be grateful to learn, spared you the translations according to the rhyme and metre of the original. Written down around the year 1200, somewhere in Austria, the Nibelungenlied is the culmination of a tradition of Germanic poetry stretching back some seven centuries, and its range and relationships reach from Hungary to the Old Norse Volsungasaga. Of Richard Wagner’s operatic adaptation, the Ring Cycle, Dr Hatto confines himself to remarking that Wagner ‘has unfortunately harmed the cause of medieval German poetry by intruding reckless distortions between us and an ancient masterpiece’. We expect in such works to find, as here, superlative piled upon superlative. Worms, the great and shining city where we begin, is today about the size of Lincoln and, though both have a cathedral, Lincoln lacks a son-et-lumiere musem extravaganza, housing more detail than you could ever want about a 2,379-verse national epic.
In the world of the Nibelungenlied, each hero is mightier than the last. Each city is more lavishly-adorned, each palace more lofty, each feast requires the slaughter of more beasts, and the draining of ever-deeper draughts of the Central European wine lake. Each new character gives us more reason to tremble before him, inspires more respect, more adulation and more fear. But, from the perspective of the drama, it is all for naught. Kriemhild’s glamorous foreign husband Siegfried is slain in part one, with the connivance of Kriemhild’s own people, and in part two she takes her revenge by subtle and devious means, eventually burning down the hall where they are feasting. She is then herself killed for allowing them to die dishonourably. The poet concludes: ‘hie hat daz maere ein ende: daz ist der Nibelunge not’ – simply, ‘here the tale ends, this is the woe of the Nibelungs’. And, from the perspective of history, the figures on whom our protagonists were based fared little better. Including the Burgundy of Gunther and his not-so-merry men, ten different political entities would call themselves ‘Burgundy’: the influence of some of these abides; ‘and some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them’ (Ecclus 44:9)
Fear and trembling, in epic as in history, proves itself ephemeral. But the fear and trembling enjoined upon us by St Paul is of an altogether different kind. ‘Fear’ is well-covered theological ground: ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’, as the Psalmist says. ‘Trembling’ is perhaps less so. In the Old Testament, in general, nature and peoples tremble: the pillars of the earth, the nations, the mountains. In the New Testament, the word is used much more sparingly, and more often of individuals. ‘Trembling’ is also what the women do in St Mark’s Gospel on discovering the Empty Tomb: ‘and they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid’. (Mk 16:8). Fear, in a sense, anticipates. Trembling is the result of some kind of encounter with the divine.
‘Fear and trembling’ has a rich theological pedigree, then, and the Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard actually wrote a book entitled ‘Fear and Trembling’. Here, he considers Abraham’s response to the divine command to sacrifice Isaac. Coincidentally, one of Kierkegaard’s classmates and close friends, Adolph Peter Adler, was pastor on the Danish island of Bornholm, which means Island of the Burgundians – make of that what you will. For Kierkegaard, Abraham’s faith is, on the surface, incomprehensible. As St Paul might put it, he does ‘all things without grumbling or questioning’, and Kierkegaard explores how the command to sacrifice Isaac triggers a crisis between ethical duty and duty to God. How can a man prepared to murder be revered as ‘our father in faith’? What Kierkegaard says we need is passion, passion to take the one step that sets us outside the general law: ‘either believe or be offended’, as one critic has put it. We might consider these – characteristically – ebullient words of Chesterton as another expression of this point of view:
All Christianity concentrates on the man at the cross-roads. The vast and shallow philosophies, the huge syntheses of humbug, all talk about ages and evolution and ultimate developments. The true philosophy is concerned with the instant. Will a man take this road or that? – that is the only thing to think about, if you enjoy thinking. The aeons are easy enough to think about, any can think about them. The instant is really awful: and it is because our religion has intensely felt the instant, that it has in literature dealt much with battle and in theology much with hell. (Orthodoxy, p. 204)
St Paul’s injunction to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling cannot be divorced from its context – ‘for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure’. As the Catechism expresses it, ‘the truth that God is at work in all the actions of his creatures is inseparable from faith in God the Creator. Far from diminishing the creature’s dignity, this truth enhances it’ (CCC 308). If we sever this link, through wilfulness, through sin, our fate will be much more terrible than a gloomy and introspective nihilism. And if our thinking falls too much on the other side of the balance – that God is at work in us and so we can simply sit back and allow him to reconfigure us for his good pleasure, we violate what it means to be human, to be created, to be loved. We trample on the law of grace, which, as St Thomas teaches us again and again, always builds on nature and does not destroy it.
Or again, if we think we’ve reached the Goldilocks paradigm – neither too hot nor too cold, but just right – then St John Chrysostom reminds us why we should be all the more conscious of the need for ‘fear and trembling’. ‘The architect’, he says, ‘though he be experienced, though he be perfectly master of his art, yet stands with “fear and trembling,” lest he fall down from the building. Thou too hast believed, thou hast performed many good deeds, thou hast mounted high: secure thyself, be in fear as thou standest, and keep a wary eye, lest thou fall thence. For manifold are the spiritual sorts of wickedness which aim to cast thee down’. (On Philippians, Homily VIII)
We need both fear and trembling in discerning our vocation in this life. We need fear, the anticipation of the unimaginable power of God to love, and the trembling of an objective, real encounter with the divine, especially and wonderfully with the Incarnate Word in his sacramental presence. And, always, grace. As the Holy Father wrote in his encyclical Spe Salvi,
The judgement of God is hope, both because it is justice and because it is grace. […] The incarnation of God in Christ has so closely linked the two together—judgement and grace—that justice is firmly established: we all work out our salvation “with fear and trembling”. Nevertheless grace allows us all to hope, and to go trustfully to meet the Judge whom we know as our “advocate” (Spe Salvi 47)
Or, in the words of Bl John Henry Newman,
In spite of all recollections of the past or fear for the future, we have a present source of rejoicing; whatever comes, weal or woe, however stands our account as yet in the books against the Last Day, this we have and this we may glory in, the present power and grace of God in us and over us, and the means thereby given us of victory in the end. Such are the thoughts which fill the heart with joy. [W]e shall not keep them without fear and trembling; still we have them, and there is nothing to hinder our rejoicing in them while we have them. (Parochial & Plain Sermons, IV.9)
‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.’