Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”Romans 8: 35-8
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
“Yet I must continue on my way today, tomorrow, and the following day, for it is impossible that a prophet should die outside of Jerusalem.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how many times I yearned to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were unwilling!”
In the gospel reading for today, we hear of Jesus’ courage in confronting the hatred and fear that Herod and others have of him. He says to the Pharisees to tell Herod that he will, because he must, continue to do the work he has been given. But it is clear that Jesus lives with no illusions. He knows that he is destined and called to go to Jerusalem, where he will be killed. How does Jesus have the courage to be who he is, to face the world both when appreciative of him and hostile to him, and to continue day by day and moment by moment to do his work, to “continue on my way today, tomorrow, and the following day”?
The answer seems to lie in Jesus’ knowledge of himself and his mission, his call. He knows that his work is the work of God in him, that his human life is a life for the sake of manifesting God’s will in the world. Somehow, it is of the very nature of that work that its unique incarnation in us, as we ourselves, must come to an end. There is no separating our unique mission and call from our humanity, in its weakness, contingency, and mortality. In short, we do not find courage by denying the pathos of our human condition but by embracing it.
It is the self-awareness of Jesus that gives rise to his empathy and love of others. At least as Luke tells it, it is Jesus’ recognition, that he must go to Jerusalem where he will be killed, that evokes in him his empathy for its people. “How many times I yearned to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were unwilling!” There is somehow an inextricable connection between those dispositions in Jesus of courage and empathy. To be courageous, we must, without ceasing, live from our heart. We lose courage when we lose heart. What is the courage that is required? It is to continue on the way we are called “today, tomorrow, and the following day.” We can only be faithful to our call and work in this way when our eyes remain open to reality, the reality of our own weakness and ultimate death and the reality of the world. Jesus weeps over Jerusalem because he knows that he and they share the same fate. Jesus longed to gather the inhabitants of Jerusalem under his wing, but they were unwilling to accept and to embrace their common destiny.
Nietzsche said that every human encounter was a meeting of power with power. For Jesus, however, a true meeting and communion is one of weakness with weakness, of mortality with mortality. It is not the opportunity to deny one’s own mortality by feeling powerful over another; it is rather a communion in our common destiny. In the gospel, Peter’s courage fails at the most significant moment when he is asked to admit his friendship with Jesus. It fails, the gospel makes clear, because Peter did not know himself. “Lord, I am prepared to go to prison and to die with you.” (Luke 22:33) False bravado is not courage.
So, from Jesus’ perspective, we cannot truly connect and commune with each other if we lack the courage to face who we are. In so doing, we come to recognize that it is in our poverty, our weakness, and our death that we are one. Had Peter been aware of his own weakness and fear, he would have had compassion for it. As Thich Nhat Hanh would say, he would have taken care of it. This is the source of our compassion for others, of our love of others.
One of the lines of scripture that I find most helpful when I am losing courage, which is more than frequently enough, is Romans 8:38. “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” What is the basis of this conviction in us? Is it due to trusting the word of another or is it founded on our own experience? One of the great critiques of faith is that it is living an illusion of a blind optimism. Such a faith demands that we live a dissociative life, that we ignore the pain and suffering, the existential dread, that comes from the reality of human experience. Those of us old enough can remember a certain post-conciliar time when, in reaction no doubt to the over emphasis in church life on suffering and on life as “a veil of tears,” it was proclaimed that “We are Christians and alleluia is our song!” The danger of this attitude lies in its confusion of happiness with joy. We need not feel “happy” to be joyful and trusting. For, as Paul delineates in this verse of Romans, there are plenty of experiences in life where we “feel” separated from the love of God. There is nothing less helpful in life than at a moment of personal tragedy or sorrow to be told what is happening is God’s will.
We know the truth of Romans 8:38 to the degree that we have entered and gone through all those things that seem to separate us from the love of God. We don’t say “alleluia” during Lent and we enter a dark and stark church building on Good Friday because we are being invited to enter into the experience of the death of Jesus, and so our own death. For, our communion with him lies in suffering to the end our human condition. When I consider those times in my own life that have been disastrous experiences of attempting to be or work with others but in which no real connection or communion occurred, it is almost always because these meetings or encounters were permeated by a false sense of power. When we are asserting power over others, we are unable to empathize with or to love them. What makes shared discernment so difficult is our refusal to come together recognizing our weakness and our need for God.
There is nothing less satisfying at the relational level than being and speaking with others in the mode of self-promotion. The more we attempt to show each other our superiority, our competence, our power, or our social status, the greater the distance between us widens. Yet, when we come together as we are, when we share with each other our need and our fears, we experience that God is with us, that we can dare to be open and honest about our vulnerability because nothing is able “to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
This is also true at the personal level. In all the trauma of life, both the severe and more ordinary ones, we feel that we are unable to survive the pain that trauma and loss evoke in us. The truth, however, is that we have survived it. We lack courage to enter life more fully because we fear the feelings we shall experience in the face of that truth. Yet, when we dare to face these feelings and the experiences that evoked them, which means having compassion for them, we discover that we have come through them, and are coming through them even as we re-live them. We are learning by experience that nothing, including what we have most feared, can separate us from the love of God.
There is no easy way around this, however. The denial of our lives inherent in a false faith, an illusory optimism, will never allow us to know this truth. Instead it will live out, in its denials to the end, the opposite. It will die believing that there are, in fact, things done by and to us, that do separate us from the love of God. Peter acts this out in denying Jesus because he could not trust that even in his own weakness Jesus would not deny him. It is this that Jesus is teaching him in the dialogue related in John 21. it is not despite who we are in our human weakness, fears, and mortality but because of who we are that we love Jesus and Jesus loves us in return. Our God is not an obscure, all powerful, and distant God. It is a God who loves us with a human heart, with a heart that is broken open by sharing all that we undergo in life. As Peter we shall deny God and each other to the degree that we refuse to have the courage to be and to live who we really are. It is only in drinking our own lives to the dregs that we discover that God is always with us and that we come to the compassionate love of others who live, in the depths of their humanity, this same truth with us.
And from this painful love of yourself, from this intimate despair because you were nothing before birth and will be nothing after death, from this compassion, you come to feel sympathy, to love, all your fellow creatures, wretched shadows that march from the nothingness to the nothingness, sparks of consciousness that shine an instant in the infinite eternal darkness. And from the other human beings, your fellow creatures, passing amidst those who are most like you, amidst your brothers and sisters, you go on to feel compassion for all poor living beings and even beings that do not live, to all that exists. That faraway star, shining there above during the night, will one day be snuffed out and will become dust and will stop shining and existing. And like it, the entire starry sky. Poor sky.Miguel de Unamuno, Treatise on the Love of God, p. 10
And while it is painful to have to cease to be one day, perhaps it would be even more painful to continue always being oneself and nothing more than oneself, without being able to be someone else at the same time, without being able to be at the same time all other beings, without being able to be everything.