We had all gone astray like sheep, each following his own way; but the Lord laid upon him the guilt of us all. Though he was harshly treated, he submitted and opened not his mouth; like a lamb led to the slaughter or a sheep before the shearers, he was silent and opened not his mouth.
Isaiah 53: 6-7
One of the harshest realities with which we have to bear in life is the inevitable sense that “life isn’t fair.” One of the greatest obstacles to believing in God is the experience that good people suffer while many who seem selfish and cruel seem to prevail. We almost cannot help but, when thrown into the midst of the suffering of those we love and of our world at large, defiantly raise the question: “Where is God now?”
It is because of our own ideas and sense of God that we think we experience his presence at the great and joyful moments of life: the beauty of a sunrise or sunset, the joy of our marriage to our beloved and the birth of our children, the magnificence of a poem of Rilke or a symphony of Beethoven, the glory of a feast day worship and celebration. And it is because of the limits of those same ideas that we sense the absence of God in the moments of deprivation, anguish, and suffering.
The other day someone asked me what I thought accounted for the birth of certain religious orders at given moments of the Church’s history. I didn’t have a very good answer at the time, but as I reflect today I think: God’s spirit moved a faithful person or faithful persons to manifest God’s presence in a place and situation where the world experienced God’s absence. As an educator, Mother Teresa witnessed the hundreds and thousands of destitute people dying alone on the streets of Calcutta. She was moved to witness to the presence of Christ with those abandoned people, that they might know God’s love and presence “to the end” of their lives. Many in the secular press criticized her for failing to put more attention on the structural issues that were the cause for the situation of the impoverished classes. Those who criticized, however, could not have appropriated the familiar passage from Mark’s gospel:
For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them; but you do not always have Me. She has done what she could; she has anointed My body beforehand for the burial. Truly I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be spoken of in memory of her.” (Mark 14: 7-9)
For Mother Teresa, each individual person dying on the street was Jesus, whom she was to stay with and anoint for burial.
We tend to “go our own way” and then to try, by dint of intellect and will, to create a God that fits into “our way.” The passion and death of Jesus challenges us to abandon our own way and to go to those places we usually avoid, because we cannot sense the presence of God in them. Is our call akin to that given to the founders of religious communities and countless faithful people throughout the ages? Might we too be called to bring, by our caring presence, the witness to God’s presence in those places where it seems to be absent: to the abandoned suffering others and to our own ignored sufferings; to the members or our families and communities who are most marginalized and difficult; to those in our world who are homeless and displaced; to those in our societies who are most rejected and despised?
This Good Friday may we more fully come to comprehend that Jesus has taken upon himself “the guilt of us all.” The love of God is not bounded by our fears, our sufferings, our prejudices, or our aversions. Most of the disciples ran away from the death of Jesus. The faithful women and John did not. It was they who saw the work of Jesus ” The love of God cannot be confined to our idea of love. We, perhaps, are called, as Jesus and Peter, to allow ourselves to be taken where “we would rather not go.” (John 21: 18) This may be how we shall finally come to discover and even attest to the presence of God as a mercy and a love that is always and everywhere with us.
Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss,
And yet not weep?
Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;
Not so the Sun and Moon
Which hid their faces in a starless sky,
A horror of great darkness at broad noon –
I, only I.
Yet give not o’er,
But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more
And smite a rock.