“And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her”
We have seen this picture far too
many times. It is the picture of the weeping widow and the grieving mother.
Almost every day and for far too many years, we have had to contemplate the
spectacles of unbearable griefs and unspeakable sorrows. A mother in
Israel weeps uncontrollably at the death of her son killed by a suicide
bomber. A Palestinian women keens at the loss of her son killed by
Israeli soldiers or by his own hand in the zeal for glory at the price of
others’ destruction. Two Canadian mothers now grieve for the death of their
sons blown up by a landmine in Kabul, Afghanistan. Such pictures have
become the commonplaces of our culture and, paradoxically, the commentary
upon our capacity for compassion.
We have, I fear, become too
accustomed to such sights. Grief has become politicized; our emotions
have become the battleground for competing political causes; but the real
casualty is compassion. Compassion has been killed in us. In its
place, there reigns frustration and rage, cynicism and despair at our own
impotence. We look upon what we cannot control or perhaps even begin
to comprehend. We look and then we look away. No wonder that we
want to run away. Any vestiges of compassion that we might once have
felt are swallowed up in bitterness and anger.
And yet, perhaps, just perhaps,
another glance at this gospel story might help us to look again and to look
again with eyes of compassion, not just cynical disdain, to look with hearts
of patient hopefulness, not just crippling despair. Perhaps, just
perhaps, there is something here that speaks to the unspeakable griefs of
our world and day. In our cynicism and despair, we are like the young
man who is dead and who is being carried to his grave. But in the
looking again at this poignant picture of a widow’s grief and a mother’s
sorrow, perhaps, just perhaps, we shall be raised up in the hope that arises
from the compassion of Christ.
That is what this story is all
about. It is all about the compassion of Christ, not only for the widow of
grief and the mother of sorrow, but also for the whole of our humanity even
in the bitter anger of our sorrows and frustrations. When compassion
is killed in us, as I fear it so easily is, then we are doubly dead, even
more, dead three times over - dead to one another, dead to ourselves and
most assuredly, dead to God.
“The Lord saw her”.
Everything begins from that look of Christ. What kind of a look is it?
Is it a look of condemnation and contempt or a look of compassion and care?
“When the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her”. His look is
his gaze of compassion upon the sorrows of our humanity in the concrete
reality of this woman’s seemingly inconsolable grief. She has lost
everything that matters - her husband and now her only son. She is
utterly bereft. Perhaps, just perhaps, our insensitive hearts can
begin to sense the absolute depth of her loss. Yet he looks upon her
with the eyes of compassion.
“Salvation begins by our being
seen by Jesus, by his turning toward us his compassionate eyes”.
But what does that compassion mean? It is a strong word, not a word for our
contemporary political games which play with our emotions and mess with our
minds. No. Here is a word which speaks to the innermost
principle of our being as humans, a word which, in the gospels, suggests
that core principle of our identity where we are recalled to the God in
whose image we are made. Compassion is about more than just a feeling
for others, an emotion which can be manipulated and abused.
The word refers to the inmost
principle of personal identity. Jesus’ looking with compassion means
that he takes the grief of this woman into himself, into the inner recesses
of his being where his humanity holds converse with the Father and the Holy
Spirit. Therein lies healing and salvation, hope and resurrection.
For these are the things which flow out from Christ’s look of compassionate
regard. “Young man, I say unto thee arise” and “he delivered
him to his mother”. Death and resurrection. Out of the compassionate
gaze of Christ comes hope and resurrection. His look changes everything.
It changes, too, how we look upon the seemingly hopeless and depressingly
horrible sorrows and griefs of our world and day.
One of the great legacies of the
Enlightenment was the conviction about making things better in the realm of
social and political affairs. Voltaire’s lively satire of the
philosopher Leibniz’ celebrated principle that “this is the best of all
possible worlds” was directed against the complacency of optimism
and the cynicism of pessimism, both of which lead to indifference and
inaction. If this is “the best of all possible worlds”, then
whatever happens must be good, simply and without qualification, and
therefore there is no need and no reason to try to make things better;
contrariwise, if this is “the worst of all actual worlds”, then
nothing can be done either. All you can do is “grin and bear it”, or
at least “grimace and bear it”. But neither Voltaire nor
Jonathan Swift were naive about what can and cannot be accomplished.
They knew about original sin; they knew about the evil that is potential and
actual in all of us. They knew about the tyranny of good intentions
and the vanity of our human projections. But their satire was also a
call for compassion over against judgment, a call for cautious action about
what can be modestly done, ultimately, it seems to me, as “rooted and
grounded in the love” which is greater than the folly of our hearts and
the presumption of our minds.
In this gospel story, we discover
the hope that conquers despair. In this gospel story, we discover the
compassion that patiently perseveres when all seems lost and gone. We are
meant to look upon one another through the eyes of Christ who looks upon all
of us compassionately. It does not mean that we can always change things
ourselves; it means only that we remain open to the transforming grace of
God even in the face of the seemingly intractable problems of the world.
Our compassion has to be about placing one another in the compassion of
Christ. It means to acknowledge a reality far greater than ourselves
and our world; that reality is grace. In the compassionate look of
Christ, we see how God looks upon our humanity. We are called to place
one another in the heart of Christ, the heart which holds the whole of the
sorrowing world before the Father in love. There and only there is