Thus says the Lord: When Israel was a child I loved him / out of Egypt I called my son. / Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, / who took them in my arms, / I drew them with human cords, / with bands of love; / I fostered them like one / who raises an infant to his cheeks; / Yet, though I stooped to feed my child, / they did not know that I was their healer.
Hosea 11:1, 3-4
A frequent critique of religion is that it is but a projection of our fears of helplessness and vulnerability onto an all powerful parent figure. It certainly must be acknowledged that not only through the history of humanity but also through our own personal spiritual histories, God is, not only at certain stages of life but from time to time throughout life, precisely this kind of refuge and even “last resort” at the awful moments of life. I can well recall as a child spontaneously crying out to God in moments of desperation. And even today, while my mindfulness and attention to God may be often perfunctory, I look to God with intensity at those times when life and its mystery is far beyond my grasp.
Today’s feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, however, is a reminder that the God who is made manifest in Jesus is much more than that projection. This is a God who is close to us, not reigning from a distance, and who suffers our human life and experience. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is the reminder that God is not only above our struggles and suffering but participates in them, is with us in them. God is not merely powerful; God is loving and tender. We are called not merely to submit to God in worship as supplicants but to love God as parent, sibling, and friend.
In Jesus we discover that our God looks on us with love, as Jesus looked at the Rich Young Man whose goodness Jesus seemed to see as the possibility of a deeper friendship and discipleship with him. So, as the Rich Young Man chooses his possessions over Jesus, we know for certain that not only does the young man go away sad but that the heart of Jesus aches at the loss of the possibility of their friendship.
The God of Christian revelation and belief is a God who does not overpower us but rather, in the words of Hosea, stoops to feed us, and then receives the heartfelt effects of our receiving or rejecting that love. The Synoptic Gospels tell us the story of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem because, instead of receiving the love that he longs to give, they reject him and will soon kill him. Jesus does not weep for himself, however. He weeps over the fact that far too many of the people cannot simply receive his, which is God’s, love for them. The scandal of Jesus and of the cross is the scandal of a God who is not the all powerful refuge of our fears that springs from our imaginations. Rather, God, in Jesus, is the tender and vulnerable one; the manifestation of God in Jesus is the love of a vulnerable human heart.
There is something built in to human consciousness that does look for the protection of an all-powerful one. Perhaps this is but a projection our own wish that we would have power over our own life and death and, to the degree necessary, power over others and their effect on us. We would like not to diminish or to suffer pain. Especially, we would like a guarantee based on our own power that our desire for and love of another and others would never be rejected. We are very much willing, in our better moments, to care for and serve others. But we would like to do that out of a strength that would produce the outcome we desire.
This applies, often unconsciously, even to what we see as ministry in Jesus’ name. We want to be “the helper” and to be known and recognized as such. We want to bring of our surplus what the poorer and more vulnerable others lack. Shortly after Hurricane Maria devastated the island of Puerto Rico, President Trump visited the island. In an unforgettable image, he stood in a room filled with people who had been displaced and threw rolls of paper towels to them, laughing as he did so. Immediately one felt a revulsion at the sight of such a domineering and demeaning attitude. Yet, we must be careful of failing to see this temptation in all of us. Do we as ministers see ourselves as “going out to the margins” because we are somehow at the center? Do we insist that our service to others must always come from a position of strength and so an attitude of superiority?
Jesus comes with a love and tenderness that makes him the subject of the power of the other. He vulnerably makes an offer to the Rich Young Man which the young man refuses — and so Jesus’ heart suffers that loss and rejection. Jesus weeps over Jerusalem because he desires to love them and for them to receive that love and so to know the gift of God that he himself experiences, and they refuse him and the gift.
The Feast of the Sacred Heart tells us that God is to be known in our human vulnerability. We cannot know God if we live our lives in pursuit of the kind of power and control that requires that we close and keep powerfully defended our own hearts. The God of our needs and imaginings is the all powerful one that we hope will, in many ways, rescue us from ourselves. Yet, in Jesus we recognize that God is only to be known and found in the heart of our human condition, a condition that includes our own weakness and our own vulnerability to the responses and reactions of others.
If we spend our lives avoiding sadness, we shall also spend our lives avoiding God. To go out to others not in power but in love and tenderness, to offer what we have, and so to subject our hearts to the potential pain of rejection and disappointment is “the Way.” Many years ago now, a teacher and great mentor to many of us died, at what we’d now see as a relatively young age, of a very badly damaged heart. As we suffered his loss, we came to realize that, as his eulogist said, his heart had been worn out from overuse. He spent his life in the service of the true and deeper life of others.
It is “only human” to devote much of our energy to protecting and defending our hearts. Yet, our hearts are given us to be used up, to become a redemptive force through the very sufferings we undergo in our attempts to love others. In Jesus, and in those who truly continue to bring his love and life into the world, we see not the omnipotent God of our wishes and imaginings but the God who is and whose love and tenderness, not judgment and power, is the way of our redemption and the source of our joy.
What is tenderness? It is the love that comes close and becomes real. It is a movement that starts from our heart and reaches the eyes, the ears and the hands. Tenderness means to use our eyes to see the other, our ears to hear the other, to listen to the children, the poor, those who are afraid of the future. To listen also to the silent cry of our common home, of our sick and polluted earth. Tenderness means to use our hands and our heart to comfort the other, to take care of those in need.
Tenderness is the language of the young children, of those who need the other. A child’s love for mom and dad grows through their touch, their gaze, their voice, their tenderness. I like when I hear parents talk to their babies, adapting to the little child, sharing the same level of communication. This is tenderness: being on the same level as the other.
God himself descended into Jesus to be on our level. This is the same path the Good Samaritan took. This is the path that Jesus himself took. He lowered himself, he lived his entire human existence practicing the real, concrete language of love.
Yes, tenderness is the path of choice for the strongest, most courageous men and women. Tenderness is not weakness; it is fortitude. It is the path of solidarity, the path of humility.
Please, allow me to say it loud and clear: the more powerful you are, the more your actions will have an impact on people, the more responsible you are to act humbly. If you don’t, your power will ruin you, and you will ruin the other.
. . . .
The future of humankind isn’t exclusively in the hands of politicians, of great leaders, of big companies. Yes, they do hold an enormous responsibility. But the future is, most of all, in the hands of those people who recognize the other as a “you” and themselves as part of an “us.”
We all need each other.
And so, please, think of me as well with tenderness, so that I can fulfill the task I have been given for the good of the other, of each and every one, of all of you, of all of us.
Pope Francis, TED Conference, 26 April 2017