Epiphanies in Our Lives (November-December 2005)

November-December 2005


Epiphanies in Our Lives ©

Epiphanies are not just for kings, wise men or magi. They can also be ours to experience.

For most of us, they occur during a long process of conversion, a progressive moving from using our self as the reference point in thoughts, decisions and actions. Jesus taught us to seek him in others, particularly in those who are hungry, who are thirsty, naked, or imprisoned. (Cf. Matt. 25)
Epiphanies remind us that we’re born to be in meaningful relationship with others and with Christ in others. Seeing that is an epiphany. Our growth in caring about others can be a cause or an outcome of such experiences of the essential nature of divinity, and it moves through particular stages, beginning with indifference, and then becoming pity, then compassion and later solidarity.

Perhaps the best biblical example of what is meant by indifference in this case is the story of the rich man and Lazarus. (Cf. Luke 16) As you read it, imagine the rich man as any Canadian and Lazarus as a child living with AIDS in Africa. “There was a rich man, who (…) feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.” What the rich man in this story felt in regard to Lazarus was indifference.

The story goes on to show that after his death, Lazarus was with God and the rich man regretted his indifference but it was too late. None of us would have been indifferent to the plight of Lazarus. We’re all disturbed by the description of a man full of sores that the dogs would lick. Maybe we feel disgust. That’s what St. Francis of Assisi felt when he saw lepers. Maybe we feel more than that, maybe pity or maybe even compassion. Maybe we even see the crucified Jesus and we feel one with him. But maybe not! Maybe we’ve not come that far just yet.

Pity is a feeling more than an action. Though it may cause us to act, we’re inclined to keep a distance from the person that elicits pity in us. Maybe we act only because we know that God would want us to, that we have a duty to feel something. As Christians, faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ, we recall how Jesus said regarding the poor, “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do it to me.” (Mt. 25: 4)

Christian charity that is authentic is rooted in compassion, or mercy: “Be compassionate as the Father is compassionate.” (Luke 7: 36) What does that mean? What does it means to be compassionate as God is compassionate? The word compassion comes from the Latin “pati” and “cum”, which mean to suffer with. Most of us resist the idea of suffering with someone else because we’re inclined to avoid pain. But the Hebrew word for compassion, “rachamin”, refers not to sympathy or pity but to a movement of the womb of God, or the “guts”. It’s God’s visceral response to a person about whom he cares very deeply.

When Jesus saw pain or distress, he felt it at the centre of his being. When Saint Paul says, “I live now not with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2: 20), he refers – among other things – to his growing capacity for compassion with regards to the people that Jesus cared about. Because of it, Saint Paul wrote to the Philippians, “God is my witness how much I miss you all with the tender compassion of Christ Jesus.” (v. 8)

God’s compassion is never abstract; it’s always concrete. God’s compassion is not a reaching down from a height to those less privileged below. That would be pity. Remember these words also from Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Though Christ was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God something to be exploited but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” (2: 6-8)

What Jesus accomplished did not diminish him. But this goes against everything that the world teaches. The world says that our ambition should be to elbow our way into positions where we’ll be served by others. Jesus says the reality in which we were created, conceived and born is completely the other way around. We, like him, have come to serve and not to be served. Service, which is a concrete form of compassion, is an essential quality of new life in Christ, which we received at baptism. And it brings joy and confidence because it has at its root our yearning to serve God. Service is attentiveness to him as well as to others.

When we share in Christ’s suffering, tells us Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans, indeed when we share in another’s suffering, we share in Christ’s glory, because that’s what he did on the cross. And that’s the obedience that led to his glorious resurrection. You may ask, what’s the point? That was ok for Jesus but I’m not cut out to do more than pity the poor. I’m only human. Well, sorry, but caring about others is actually what it means to be human.

The fact is that, near the end of his life, Jesus made an astonishing statement about what we – mere humans – can accomplish with compassion as Christians, as disciples, as servants called to be instruments of God’s compassion. He said, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14: 11-12)

Wow! Greater works than these! You’re called to do greater works than those that Jesus did. This is a real test of our faith, isn’t it? Do you really believe that the Father, through the servant leadership of his Son and through the wisdom and courage of his Holy Spirit is calling you to do greater works that those accomplished by Jesus? Do any of us truly believe this? Do we believe that it’s even our role to do what he did, to be compassionate as the Father is compassionate, to serve as Jesus served, and thereby, “to bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” (Luke 4:18)

It’s my belief that throughout his years of public ministry, Jesus experienced epiphanies. He saw the Father’s will in the suffering that he witnessed among the people who were drawn to him – in their loneliness, in their anguish and in their search for meaning. In them, we find Jesus too. We encounter Jesus in others, but also in the Word of God, the Good News of God. The Gospel confronts us often in disquieting ways. It says sometimes softly and sometimes it shouts into our deafness, “Move from where you’re comfortable. Move to where you’ll grow, to where you’ll learn something about yourself …about the meaning of your life. Move from your complacency to where you’ll learn about love and how to love …as Jesus loves.”

Such displacement leads us to face and to recognize and to accept our inner brokenness, and to name who we really are. Moving voluntarily to find the face of Christ, to put our fingers into his wounds as Thomas did, such a displacement brings us into solidarity with the Other who suffers.

Along his own journey, Jesus gathered others around him. This is important. For us, as it was for Jesus, compassion is more effectively expressed when it’s not an act of personal heroism but the response of a community. Without community, prayer or material assistance is hard to sustain. Our initial motivation – no matter how noble – can slip into disinterest, or even resentment.

A faith community can’t really grow – at least not to its full potential – unless it moves beyond just simply coming together once in a while. A family can’t be a life-giving community if it stays home and doesn’t let its love spill over into the community. A parish can’t be a spiritually nourishing community if it won’t move beyond mere associations of liturgical worshipers. A Church can’t be the incarnation of Love, which is what the mystical body of Christ is, unless it moves far beyond the safe boundaries of its own country. A Christian community worthy of its name must be compassionate and active in its compassion.

James is clear about this when he writes, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress.” (1: 26) Other verses echo this call to action. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (2: 14-17)

Recall the familiar story found in Matthew’s gospel that ends with the haunting verse, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Five little words – “You did it to me” – five little words that sum up the meaning of Christianity, of discipleship and even of what it means to be a human being, “You did it to me.”

Compassion builds community. Without compassion, relationships are not generative. They don’t feed anyone. Without compassion, we form collectivities, not communities. Can you and I do this? Sure we can, provided we always remember that it’s God compassion that we’re working with. And for that to work, our compassion must be rooted in prayer. Why is prayer necessary if action is what proves the value of compassion? Well, simply because without prayer, we soon become exhausted, burned out and even bitter in the face of such daunting challenges as AIDS in Africa, and of the orphans in particular against whom grave injustices are perpetrated. Prayer is not an escape from compassion. It’s not a cop out from acting compassionately in the name of God. It’s a way of discerning how God wants us to act.

There is another reason for prayer as well. Prayer is a healthy antidote to sentimentalism and impatience. And it’s important that we guard against these traps: sentimentalism that leads to superficial action, and impatience that leads to rash action. The social activism of the 60s and 70s, that I well remember, ran out of steam precisely because the action was self-righteous and tainted by anger. Our compassion must be marked by gratitude – thanksgiving for all that’s wonderful and positive and beautiful and life-giving. True compassion is the grateful, free and joyful expression of an encounter with God, the author of all selfless love and compassion.

We’re told that love is the heart of Christianity. If this is so, then compassion is the blood that runs through all the members of Christ’s body – a body that stretches around the world. True love – love as Jesus lived it – is not even conceivable in situations where compassion is lacking. God is compassionate. God is love. With God among us, God within us, we are capable of awesome things, as Jesus promised we would be. With him in us, we can experience divine love and have an epiphany of love …Love that moves mountains …in fact, love that creates a new city, the City of God …love that creates a new city and a new earth and even a new heaven.

Dare to imagine as John the Evangelist did when he wrote these beautiful words in the Book of Revelation. Let them paint a picture of our world – of Africa in particular – as a place where compassion brings us closer together and closer to strangers too. Imagine how different our world would be: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, a New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”

Brothers and sisters, by God’s grace, you hold the key to that world. Be not afraid to use it. Reach into that world. Walk beyond your limits and fears. Embrace others in a new way, as Christ did. Your new-found freedom will make them free. You will see the face of God. And your life will never be the same.

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After pity and after compassion comes solidarity. Solidarity puts the unity in community. Solidarity is the mark of true compassion. It’s evidence that we’ve heard God’s call to be compassionate as he’s compassionate. Compassion is both the cause and the result of God’s solidarity with human suffering.

Again, recall what Paul wrote to the Philippians about Jesus taking the form of a servant, for our sake, accepting even death on a cross to show his solidarity with human suffering. Jesus provides the best example of taking compassion to the limits of solidarity. A noted theologian once wrote, “only in having an unconditional solidarity with the condemned of the earth could we dare to speak about the love of God for us.”

We’re called to be in solidarity with individuals and even with groups or nations in that these are made up of individuals, particular people with faces and lives. We’re reminded of our call to be, as Jesus was, in particular solidarity with the poor. (Cf. Luke 4:16-21; Matt. 25: 39-45) This sense of solidarity was central in the letters of Saint Paul, who reminds the Christian communities in Greece several times of the “solidarity campaign” for the poor churches in Jerusalem.

The exhortations in his second letter to the Corinthians constitute a “theology of solidarity” among churches. Paul urges the Corinthians to imitate the generosity of the churches in Macedonia. This is an important part of discipleship for Paul. Here’s what he wrote, “Brothers and sisters, we want you to know what God’s grace has accomplished in the churches of Macedonia. They have been severely tested by the troubles they went through; but their joy was so great that they were extremely generous in their giving, even though they are very poor. I can assure you that they gave as much as they could, and even more than they could. Of their own free will they begged us and pleaded for the privilege of having a part in helping God’s people in Judea. It was more than we could have hoped for! First they gave themselves to the Lord; and then, by God’s will they gave themselves to us as well. So we urged Titus, who began this work, to continue it and help you complete this epical service of love. You are so rich in all you have: in faith, speech, and knowledge, in your eager ness to help and in your love for us. And so we want you to be generous also in this service of love. I am not laying down any rules. But by showing how eager others are to help, I am trying to find our how real you own love is.” (2 Cor. 8: 1-8)

It’s important to note that Saint Paul saw this generosity as the effect of the grace of God on them. We too must understand that all of this is the fruit of God’s immense generosity. Our compassion is not ours but his. Even our decision to act in solidarity is not from us but it is our acceptance of yet another gift from God. It’s a special privilege to feel and act in solidarity – in meaningful and life-giving relationship with others. If solidarity is a burden at all, it’s a light burden. Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Mt. 11: 9) It’s much lighter than the crushing weight of alienation, of loneliness and the numbness of spirit, which are the fruit of lives turned inward.

This reference to the grace of God in Saint Paul’s epistle is important. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he had used the word “grace” in connection with the sending of the Corinthians’ donations to Jerusalem. But in his second letter, he identified grace as the cause of generosity in a community that serves the poor. With this evidence, it’s clear that to refuse the gift of solidarity with sisters and brother in Christ, particularly with the poor, is to miss a big part of what it means to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.

Solidarity is one of the major effects of an epiphany. This was the effect of my own encounter with the crucified Christ in poor people living with AIDS in Africa. Now, I want to participate in their lives by alleviating some of the suffering that is part of the ongoing reality of orphans in the remote northern region of Malawi. My own modest efforts now are directed to raise awareness and money to bring hope to some of the AIDS orphans in the district of Karonga. The world we as Christians want to create is a world in which children are warmly welcomed as sisters and brothers in Christ. Jesus “took (the children) up in his arms, laid his hand on them, and blessed them.” (Mark 10:16)

We’re called to take into our hearts the child of Bethlehem – and all the children show us his face today. We’re called to bless them with our prayers and with compassion from God. This makes us truly human. We are also urged to demonstrate compassion and solidarity with bold and generous action. Without living parents, the children of Malawi have been stigmatized and discarded. They’re malnourished and clinging to hope by the thinnest of threads.

They are our sons and they are our daughters. You are their mothers and their fathers. You are their sisters and their brothers. If you could only look into their big beautiful eyes – like the wise men who saw Jesus – you too would “return to your country by another way. (Cf. Mt. 2:12)

For a disciple of Jesus the Christ, indifference to the lives of others is not a natural state. In fact, pity is only the beginning of a long conversion. To feel pity is the first response to a desire to be in meaningful relationship with others. Compassion gets us closer to this desire. But the deepest desire is for solidarity. Solidarity reveals our profound desire to live in full communion with God through others, not just sometimes …but always. Pity compels us to think of who I have been calling the Other (with a capital “O”), the Other in Christ. Compassion invites us to visit and stay awhile. And solidarity calls us to live with the Other in Christ permanently – in one world with one heart, one spirit, one love – his heart, his spirit and his love.

We form one body with those with whom we associate in our lives, those we love as well as those that we must forgive. We’re also one body with people that we’ve never met, with strangers. We’re one body with the poor, with those who hunger, with those who thirst; with those who are naked; with those who are sick; with those who are imprisoned both literally and figuratively.

We’re not indifferent. We have more than pity for them. We have compassion …for they are our sisters and brothers. But more than this, we are one with them. They are us.

And they named him Emmanuel, God-with-us