The Compassion of Christ
How many of us are deeply disturbed and greatly saddened by the political circus of our supreme court judicial process which we have watched these past weeks. No matter what political side one defends, I think many Americans are dismayed and depressed about the anger, bitterness, callousness and even hatred that people feel for others who disagree with their own opinion or political view. Whether a woman claims to be sexually assaulted, or a man claims to be falsely accused, I wondered throughout the debate if anyone was listening, actually listening to those who were politically opposite themselves, and trying not only to understand the other perspective, but trying to see and feel what the other person was experiencing. The vitriol comments thrown at each person, and at those who disagree with our own opinion, is extremely disturbing.
There was a time when people in our country felt connected with one another, even with those whom we disagreed politically. Certain unifying factors connected everyone with one another – we understood that we are Americans before we are Democrats or Republicans; much more important, though, is realization that we are Christians who place our faith of loving one another above politics or any other issue. And even if our neighbors aren’t Christian, we followers of Jesus know that love for the other is one of the greatest commandments. We’ve lost this sense of agape love for one another.
Of course, as disciples of Jesus, love is the central virtue we are called to cultivate and express – even love to those we may consider our enemies! Well, in some ways today’s Gospel story highlights another central and key characteristic which Jesus reflected in His life and ministry, and which we all need to cultivate more and more in our own lives – the virtue of compassion.
In today’s Good News, we hear about Jesus entering a town, and seeing a tragic scene. A funeral procession proceeding out the town gates preparing to bury the only son of a widowed woman. A widow was one of the most defenseless and desperate people in society, yet as long as she had a son, she had a man who could still look after her and support her. Now that her son, her only son, died, she was left alone. Defenseless. Vulnerable. Marginalized. Desperate. Broken-hearted.
Holy Scripture describes this scene by saying “When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.”” Numerous times throughout the Gospels we hear the Evangelists highlight “Jesus had compassion… showed compassion… felt compassion.” When Jesus saw this widow who just lost her only son, or previously a centurion whose daughter was deathly ill, or a father who struggled with his son’s epilepsy, and even crowds of people who seemed lost and desperate for hope – Holy Scripture notes that Jesus “showed compassion on them.”
Here is a central virtue we need to recover and live out in our contemporary life!
When one is suffering and in need, what do people need most? One could argue that their greatest need is for someone to understand their suffering, for someone to join them in their journey through the depths of their sorrow or pain or struggle. When we know we are not alone, we find great comfort and strength. When we feel for others, empathize with them, and offer them a loving presence, even if we can’t resolve their problems, this is what can give someone hope to go on, persevere and never despair or give up.
The dictionary explains that “compassion motivates people to go out of their way to help the physical, mental, or emotional pains of another.” The etymology of the word "compassion” from its Latin roots means "co-suffering." Compassion involves not only "feeling for another" but “feeling with another.”
As the great spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen notes, “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”
Ultimately, this is the compassion Jesus showed to the world, to each one of us. When God became human, he entered into our dark, suffering world, and He journeyed with us. He took no short cuts, but experienced the evil, hatred, betrayal, rejection along with the actual physical and mental suffering of humanity, even suffering up to the point of death itself! Nouwen goes on to say “He gave up a privileged position, a position of majesty and power, and assumed fully and without reservation a condition of total dependency… In the Gospel stories of Jesus’ healings, we sense how close God wants to be with those who suffer. But now we see the price God is willing to pay for this intimacy. Jesus’ whole life and mission involved accepting powerlessness and revealing in this powerlessness the limitlessness of God’s love. Here we see what compassion means. It is not a bending toward the underprivileged from a privileged position; it is not a reaching out from on high to those who are less fortunate below; it is not a gesture of sympathy or pity for those who fail to make it in the upward pull. On the contrary, compassion means going directly to those people and places where suffering is most acute and building a home there.”
Can we strive, in our own lives, to become more compassionate with others? This is our call as followers of Jesus – to understand the compassion He showed to us, and then to imitate this same compassion, this same “co-suffering” with one another. Can we try not only to understand, but to enter into the suffering of others, including the suffering of those we may disagree with, those we may consider different than ourselves, those we may think of even as our enemies? Compassion knows no limits but is a spirit that reached beyond any barriers or differences we may have with others. Compassion enters into the suffering of others in order to share the healing love of God through one’s presence.
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Holy Land Pilgrimage 2019