Thursday, December 24, 2009

Incarnation: God's Gift of Compassion

It's Christmas Eve and as I continue to process the death of the most significant person in my life, I have a growing sense that human suffering is truly the reason God came to earth as a human person.  Jesus, fully God and fully human, experienced both the best and the worst experiences of human life. The gift to us, is that because God, through the earthly life of Jesus, has experienced what it means to suffer loss, grief, pain etc, that God understands us and has compassion for us. (Compassio - Latin root meaning  = to suffer with).

I was told this a number of years ago when I did a Life's Healing Journey retreat with Peter Campbell, MSC, but at the time I only half believed it. After all, how can Jesus, who accepted and chose his path to the Cross, whose parents did not divorce, who never lost a spouse or lover to divorce or death, who was able to raise his beloved friend Lazarus from the dead, understand the wrenching depth of the pain these experiences of betrayal and loss create in the souls of human beings for a lifetime?  Betrayal, humiliation and crucifixion are horrible things, but Jesus only suffered for less than a day - while many people suffer pretty much for the rest of their lives.

In the intervening years, as I have come to understand Paschal Mystery (the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ - the central mystery of our faith) more deeply, I have had a better intellectual understanding of how this is supposed to work. Jesus, who accepted that it was will of his Father that he suffer, showed us that acceptance of the circumstances of one's life is the road to resurrection. This, I tell people when I teach, is why we have faith - so that when life deals us those huge blows, we have a "safety net". What has been more difficult for me to negotiate is the struggle to get the heart to join the mind in that acceptance.

As I write this, I am not there yet. 6 months is not enough time to process a major loss. What frightens me most is that people who have experienced such major loss tell me you never really "get over it." Somehow you just go on. What is not yet clear to me is whether there is reason to hope that any form of "resurrection"  (recovery and joy) necessarily takes place this side of the grave - or whether the promise is simply that we will be given the strength to perseve in spite of suffering and rise again on the Last Day to shed all our tears and pain as we go to our eternal life with God.

This much I do know - Jesus Christ became a human person to share the experience of suffering so that we could be sure that God truly knows what that experience is. He modeled a path through suffering resurrection that mirrors the experiences we have of being brought to our knees by the travails of life and being raised up again.  Whatever the full truth is, I am sure now that God does have compassion in the Latinate meaning of "suffering with" - that God cries when we do and God's heart is heavy whenever ours is. And that is the greatest gift of all - that this is not an impersonal deity who watches us cooly at a distance and waits for us to figure it out. If we are truly created in the image of God, then our emotional life is something God also shares. So, when God came to earth it was not only to share the experience of human suffering, but to demonstrate, through Jesus, how great that love is. The wood of the manger is the archetype of the wood of the cross. 

In that I find comfort, as I struggle my way back to trusting the God who gives and takes away. Blessed be the Lord who loved the world so much that He sent his only begotten Son as witness to that love.  Merry Christmas, all, no matter where your life journey has taken you - in sorrow or joy.

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