Compassion: I Suffer With You

10th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Earlier this week I awoke to the news that an infant was born in an area hospital to a 31-year old Honduran woman infected with the Zika virus. The mother was visiting the United States at the time of her daughter’s birth, and the child was born with microcephaly, a severe fetal brain defect caused by the Zika virus. According to a report on abcnews.go.com “The infant is only the second baby suspected of being born in the U.S. with the Zika virus-related birth defect, characterized by an abnormally small head and brain. Another baby was born with the condition in Hawaii earlier this year.”

How frightened that new mother must be. On the most fundamental level, the depth of her sorrow, and worry about her adequacy as a mother, and the sheer injustice of chance is more than I can comprehend. Through no fault of her own, she was bitten by a virus-carrying mosquito during her pregnancy. Because of this, her baby girl, like the thousands of other similarly afflicted infants born around the globe, and those yet to be born before this virus is eradicated, will never experience the fullness of their life’s flourishing.

The story of the Zika birth on U.S. soil flooded social media outlets. Armchair judges shared the news wildly, many adding their condemnation of the new mother and child for the entire world to see. I was not aware that so many people manage to remain alive with hearts made of stone.

“So now the American tax-payers have a new citizen requiring expensive, life-long care”

“This is total bullsh*t. She should have been put on a plane and sent right back to Honduras. You can bet she has no means to pay for this health care, so we the taxpayers will foot the bill.”

“It really sucks, I’m sure, to think that your pregnancy is effected by Zika, but it also sucks that someone comes to this country to give birth and milk hundreds of thousands of dollars in Healthcare services for your delivery and child when those who have been a taxpayer and a citizen isn’t getting that health care and being treated as a drain on the nation we’ve paid taxes to. Now this kid is a US citizen and can get a free ride on medical care, food, etc. We have got to change our laws, because people who are actual citizens are getting shafted.”

“So if you have a heathy heard of cattle would you bring in a cow knowing it had hoof and mouth disease? As simple as that. Wonder how much it will cost? They knew she had it!”

For some people, the value of life is “as simple as that.” The scale that weighs human worth is calibrated with the amount of taxes one pays into the system. Clearly, some people in our society think it is fine to abandon women and children who cannot support themselves. It is no exaggeration to observe how little we have progressed from the biblical culture in which it was acceptable for women who lacked male support to become destitute.

Am I judgmental? I admit I am. This whole way of thinking is excruciatingly painful to me. Still, I continue to hope in the inherent goodness of humankind.

I’m no psychologist, but I’m pretty sure that callous responses to the suffering of others are a learned behavior birthed from deep insecurities and the fear of losing one’s identity. I feel sorry for people who feel threatened or displaced by the needs of others and who find justification in their meanness and lack of kindness.

Still, we are all works in progress—myself included—and I believe hardened hearts can be softened, walls can be taken down, and layers of fear can be peeled away. It begins with the practice of suffering with one another: compassion.

Compassionate acts have the power to energize those whose lives are waning. Through our care and concern, God’s love for us is made known.

How often do we feel compelled to do unsolicited acts of kindness, empathy, and seek companionship, and friendship? Something as simple as a smile or a door held open for one who is suffering, and the seemingly random but thoughtful acts when one individual takes a moment to recognize another’s distress are examples of how God’s presence is revealed in human action.

Sometimes we are the dead who need resuscitating.

Luke’s Gospel story of the widow of Nain [Luke 7:11-17] provides us with a profound example of the life-giving power of compassion.

As Jesus, his disciples and the large crowd following him neared the entrance to the city of Nain they passed a widow accompanying the body of her only son to his burial place outside the city walls.

In biblical times, a woman’s identity and survival depended on male support. With the death of her son, the widow of Nain’s life also ended; the funeral procession was her own. She had no place to call home, no financial support, no identity; she was no longer a contributing member of society.

Jesus was moved with pity by the sight. The painful loss of the woman’s beloved son, his companionship, his care and his love for her ceased, and the future she faced as a childless widow moved Jesus to save her life by restoring the life of her son.

The challenge of compassionate living is not the same as the clichéd “what would Jesus do?” although WWJD has led people to make more life-giving and peaceable choices in difficult situations.

Compassion is about allowing God’s presence to work in us, with us and through us. Another person’s compassion or tenderness towards us has the power to restore us to a more abundant life.

Our concern and empathy for the plight of another, like the Zika-stricken Honduran woman and her microcephalic infant daughter, has the power to transform her life and ours from one state of being to another, from future without hope to one that offers the promise of abundant life.

Compassion is about taking on the cloak of the Prophet, dying to our own needs and fears, and joining them to one another’s.

That’s the miracle of restoring life to one whose life is all but lost.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

I want to see

30th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

Last Saturday, my husband and I attended the vigil mass at our new parish church. We were running late, but my initial worries about making an entrance during the procession (or worse while the mass was in progress) were relieved when I saw the celebrant, cross-bearer and ministers still standing in the narthex waiting to process in. We slid unnoticed into a pew.

At that moment we realized something was wrong.

A man called out loudly from the side aisle; his garbled words echoed against the marble.

All the assembled, standing for the start of the mass, turned in their pews to see what was happening and then turned quietly back, heads lowered. They remained standing, some looking at their hands, or nervously leafing through the bulletin, or exchanging glances with one another. Some, unable to ignore the commotion turned toward the small crowd of people surrounding and attending to the man.

I asked a woman in the pew behind us if she knew what was happening. She shrugged and said, “A man is shouting.” As a newcomer to this urban parish who is not used to this much pre-mass excitement, I wondered if the woman’s casual response meant this was a common occurrence in this faith community.

The man’s incoherent ramblings continued. I prayed for him and for the priest and pastoral staff who quietly spoke with him.

A few years ago we attended an early morning Easter Sunday mass in a Jesuit parish located in the Flatiron District of New York City. This glorious sacred space was packed with worshippers. Somehow my husband and I managed to squeeze into a front pew where I observed a woman wrapped in a blanket blissfully asleep on the floor in front of us. She awoke during the opening rite and participated from her place on the floor. I noticed she was wearing a pink sweater and had a bow in her hair for Easter. When the time came for the sign of peace, one, two, three, then a steady stream of people, including the presider, came to greet and shake the hand of this woman, who clearly was a known and loved member of their community.

Both of these examples remind me of this weekend’s gospel, the story of Bartimaeus, the blind man who sits by the road leading out of Jericho, begging Jesus to have mercy on him. [MK 10:46-52]. Bartimaeus’ loud and persistent attempts to gain Jesus’ attention disrupts the crowd so much so that “many rebuked him, telling him to be silent.” [Mark 10:48]. But notice, when Jesus asks Bartimaeus “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus begs not for food or money; he says, “I want to see.” [MK 10:51]

For the past seven weeks (the 24th through 30th Sundays in Ordinary Time), the Sunday Gospel readings have drawn us into Jesus’ teaching journey with his apostles and the larger group of disciples following him to Jerusalem. Along the way, Jesus attempts to help his followers to see—to guide their comprehension of his identity—and to reveal the conditions of discipleship.

One of the many things I love about studying Mark’s gospel is noticing who “gets” Jesus. It is a testament to the subtle brilliance of the writer that he positions two miracles of restored sight at either end of Jesus’ teaching journey. In both cases, two blind non-followers receive the sight that the disciples have yet to gain. In the first, a nameless blind man is brought to Jesus by others for healing. Jesus restores the man’s sight, but not immediately; the man’s comprehension requires time and coaxing from Jesus. [MK 8:22-26]. The second case is different. Here the blind man has a name, Bartimaeus, and his faith and desire to know Jesus gives him particular insight into Jesus’ identity. Immediately upon receiving his sight Bartimaeus becomes a follower of Jesus. [MK 10:52].

I like to think, with my longing to understand who Jesus is and how I can be a good disciple, I am more like Bartimaeus than the unnamed man from Bethsaida, but that would be untrue. I’m like both of them: a little confused but enthusiastic; and I’m like the disciples on the journey: dense but promising. I think that is what Mark is trying to tell his readers. There is hope for us.

Turns out the man who disrupted the procession at my local parish last weekend was known to the community, just like the woman who had been sleeping on the floor of the Jesuit church was known to the members of her congregation. In both instances, I received new sight. The compassionate response of my pastor and fellow parishioners attending to the disturbed man’s comfort, much like the beautiful witness of an Easter people showering love on a woman our culture pretends not to see healed my blindness and allowed me to ‘get’ Jesus in a way I had not expected to.

How badly do we want to see? Persistence like that of Bartimaeus is the plow that clears the way between seeing who walks alongside us, or remaining in the dark. As for myself, I have moments of spiritual clarity and moments of blurred vision. But I know the Christian life is a journey of coming to see. There is hope for me.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

I’m the greatest!

25th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

When I was a kid my younger brother had a maddening habit of sneaking up behind me and whispering, “I’m the greatest!” He’d repeat this claim multiple times, driving 13 year-old me to, on occasion, throttle his little pencil neck. Sorry about that, brother, but what you didn’t understand was that I, your older and more fabulous sister, was the greatest. Ha!

But, seriously, the whole “I’m the greatest” thing and the need to prove it is not limited to sibling squabbles, it lies at the heart of every human conflict. Think about any one of the myriad disagreements surrounding what identifies a people, a nation, a culture, a political party, or what distinguishes an economy or power. Even in the adult family dynamic the need to be “number one” is responsible for conflicts that continue for generations. My theory, my religion, my politics, my needs, my suffering, and my personal goodness: no matter what it is mine is greater than yours.

This claim to greatness is connected to our sense of self-worth and as such, is fragile; it is easily threatened by external events and the needs or perceived greatness of others. How will this new thing or new, potentially better person affect me? What about my needs? I must prove my worth and stake my claim! Clearly, the general understanding of greatness is backward; it lacks justness, humility, compassion, and love.

The traits of true greatness, which also include self-awareness and empathy, create a culture of righteousness, of living in right relationship with others—the exact kind of righteousness the writer of the Letter of James exhorts his community to embrace. The passage begins, “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice.” [James 3:16] He goes on “Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions that make war within your members?” [James 4:1] Yes. Wars and conflicts do come from our self-serving passions.

Jesus attempts to teach his disciples about true greatness. When he predicted his death to his disciples Jesus told them, “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death he will rise.” [Mark 9:31] The scripture goes on to say the disciples did not understand and were afraid to question Jesus. But when I read this, I can imagine the disciples thinking to themselves: “This can’t be. If what Jesus is saying is true, what will become of us?”

Theologian, John Shea, explains the disciples’ lack of response this way,” Since their focus was completely on themselves, they naturally were afraid for themselves.”*  I wonder if they even heard the part about “and three days after his death he will rise.” It’s like a case of selective listening; they jumped over it because their primary concern was “what about us?” Jesus was inviting them into a higher consciousness, but they, like us, were not yet ready to accept it. Instead, they began to argue amongst themselves who was the greatest, and perhaps, the most likely one to carry on Jesus’ ministry after he was gone.

But then Jesus makes the meaning of true greatness clear to the disciples: Greatness is not about you.

Earlier this week I was standing in front of my house talking to a good friend and neighbor. We were talking about flu shots. He and his wife had just gotten theirs. The conversation turned to the fact that in some known cases, the protection offered by childhood immunizations diminishes. My friend commented that he used to have mixed feelings about inoculations, but what he said next really struck me. He said he chooses to get annual flu shots and inoculations not so much to reduce his own chance of sickness but to help prevent someone else who is weaker from getting ill.

Now, who’s the greatest?

Jesus said, “if anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” [Mark 9:35b]

Today’s readings can be found here. 

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*John Shea. 2005. The Spiritual Wisdom of Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: Eating with the Bridegroom Year B. Year B edition. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press. Page 230

Come away, and rest a while

16th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

Imagine: You and a team of trainees just returned from an exhausting week in the field. Every day brought new challenges. You spent the majority of your time teaching, problem solving and helping people who desperately needed your assistance. The stakes were high, and your work was exemplary. You are exhilarated, exhausted and hungry. Back at the office your supervisor listens as you recount your adventures, and invites you and the team to a brief offsite retreat. Meanwhile, the news of your success is spreading rapidly, and during the short time you are traveling to the retreat site an urgent request for assistance arises. Upon your arrival you discover a crowd of anxious people waiting. So much for taking a break. But here’s the thing. Without breaking stride your supervisor assesses the situation and responds with patience and compassion. You never sense frustration or disappointment or bother, because it is not there. Your supervisor is showing you what solidarity looks like.

This is the gospel of Mark 6:30-34. You might notice that Mark spends a lot of time presenting the rigors of discipleship to his readers. This story began with the disciples witnessing Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth by his own people (MK 6:1-6), followed by Jesus summoning the twelve and sending them off in twos to help spread the message far and wide (MK 6:7-13), and finally the disciples return from their mission, euphoric and bursting with tales of their success. But Jesus has more in store, of course.

“He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” People were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat.” [MK 6:31]

It’s important to understand the depth of poverty in Jesus’ day. The majority were non-landowning peasants, day laborers if they were lucky, and dirt poor. Even those who had jobs barely had enough to get by thanks to the burden of religious and secular taxation. The crowds following Jesus were always hungry. Everyone was.

So, coming away to a deserted place away from the crowds in order to eat makes sense. I totally get it. As a young mother I regularly ate my lunch in the bathroom. My daughter, an absolutely adorable and ravenous 2-year-old, used to follow me around the house saying “Hungry, Mama. Hungry.” I fed her. I fed her her food and then I fed her my food. Her excellent hearing included knowing when the refrigerator door was being opened. There I’d be, the upper half of my body inside the fridge, sneaking a piece of sliced turkey and she would appear behind me, her angelic face looking up at me asking, “Some?

Coming away has another meaning according to John Shea. “To come away to that place means to return to the source, to be nurtured by God.”[1]  In that place, the disciples could find refreshment. But again, there is more to Jesus’ invitation.

If work is done in order to be completed, no matter how energizing it once was, it soon becomes a chore. Furthermore, it doesn’t take very long to discover no job is ever finished. Even in our “deserted place” the work awaits our return. There is no escape. Mark doesn’t say how the disciples reacted when they saw the crowds, whether they groaned about needing a break, or if they were disappointed because they just wanted to finish their sandwich in peace. What Mark does tell us is how Jesus reacted from the deserted place. He was filled with compassion, literally. The original Greek says his gut was wrenched by the sight of the crowd. These were his people.

Jesus’ solidarity with the poor provides us with an important lesson: If our genuine concern for others emerges solely from a sense of difference, for example, those who are poorer, those who are less healthy, those who have less opportunity, those without a stocked pantry, those without clean water, and so on, we quickly tire because there is no end in sight. But if what we do for one another comes from a place of solidarity, we enter the resting place, our source and our refreshment; we recognize our commonality in the poor, the sick, and the disadvantaged. These are our people.

This is why Jesus instructed the disciples not to take anything on their mission other than a walking stick and a pair of sandals; they were to move about the community as equals with those they served; they had to depend on God’s providence just like everyone else.

This is what discipleship means. When our starting place is our common humanity, our focus shifts. What we do for others, we soon realize, we do because they are just like us, and we cannot stomach having it any other way.

Today’s readings can be found here. 


[1] John Shea. 2005. The Spiritual Wisdom of Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: Eating with the Bridegroom Year B. Year B edition. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press. Page 184.

No deal. You can’t buy that.

3rd Sunday of Lent (B)

What was being sold in the Jerusalem Temple that put Jesus over the edge?gold_bag

The Gospel of John 2:13-25 specifically mentions oxen, sheep, and doves. But, this was not like a farmer’s market populated by vendors, or a quick stop on the way home from Temple. The goods and the market had a specific purpose; this was a place where animals could be purchased for religious sacrifice. The gospel also mentions money changers. A simple interpretation suggests the system of purchasing animals for sacrifice had become too materialistic and the money changers may have been taking advantage of buyers. Clearly this would be an unjust situation, but was Jesus’ rage brought on by commercialization and price gouging? Let’s go deeper.

Recall the reason Jesus was in Jerusalem. It was  because “the Passover of the Jews was near.” Every year great numbers of Jewish people made the long and arduous journey for the feast. Imagine making this trip, not only with your children and your elderly parents, but with your sacrificial animals in tow. For many it was unrealistic. Therefore they intended to purchase those animals upon their arrival. And what better place to find the finest, most perfect and unblemished animals than in the temple area where  people understood such things? Makes perfect sense.  But not to Jesus. What was it about this situation that enraged him so?

He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.” [John 2:15]

Hundreds of years before Jesus, the Prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, and Micah denounced the cult of animal sacrifice as abhorrent to God, proclaiming what God desired was justice for the oppressed, the poor, and the marginalized, not the slaughter of innocent animals as an act of worship. And yet the practice continued as a kind of transaction initiated by humans to gain favor with God. The Jerusalem Temple had become the locus of human-divine deal making.

Theologian John Shea writes “Jesus’ Father, however, is not a deal maker. (God) does not exchange favors for sacrifices. The Father is a free flow of spiritual life and love that cannot be bought, bartered, bargained, or bribed.”[1]

Jesus said, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.” [John 2:16c] He literally turns the tables on the idea of making bargains with God, and says no deal. This is not how God works. God wants your fidelity, your commitment, and most of all, your love for God, for neighbor and for all of creation. As an evangelizing people our actions must respond to each of God’s desires, not because these are pleasing to God, which they are, but because our experience of God’s abundant love prompts us to do so.

Today’s readings can be found here.

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[1] John Shea. Eating with the Bridegroom.Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2005. pg 91

Who’s in your circle?

4th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

It seems more now than ever people surround themselves solely with like-minded individuals and groups, and avoid social interaction with the rest.  It is nicer this way, some might say, we have more in common. The growing divide between opposing views and the avoidance of thoughtful discourse (which could lead to mutual respect) has nearly reached a societal impasse. Those people. Can’t stand them. And it is not only politics that divides us, the other day I read  comments on a nutrition blog which devolved into ad hominem attacks on those who voluntarily eliminated wheat and dairy from their diet. No wonder we distance ourselves from any situation that might lead to a confrontation. The truth is many people go to great lengths to steer clear of situations that challenge the security of the status quo. It can ruin a perfectly nice day.

Clearly this is not what Jesus would do. Take, for example, Jesus’ teaching about those with “unclean spirits” [MK 1:21-28]. Rather than steering clear Jesus dives right in. Jesus objected to Jewish purity laws which prescribed keeping one’s distance to avoid contamination and alienation from the community. For Jesus, purity laws were problematic in that they actually established a dwelling place for unclean spirits. And because Jesus is all about unity he risked his own contamination, approached the possessed man and called the evil out. Jesus carried his own purity into the situation in order to cleanse the other. So powerful was Jesus’ truth it expelled, but not without a fight, what separated the human person from the community. Like the stunned witnesses, Jesus shows us a different way to deal with people we would ordinarily avoid.

Today the words “unclean spirit” are tricky. Are we to understand this to mean literal possession by evil or should we consider the behavior of the biblical demoniac a form of mental illness? The latter calls us to compassion. Either way, the suffering human person is alienated from others. Might an unclean spirit also refer to one whose behavior is misguided and destructive to the self and others, and not grounded in the love that brings about creation and community? Can we, like Jesus, attempt to call out what dwells in the darkness by shining the light of truth on it? We must. If we continue to separate ourselves and keep our circles small, we do nothing to affect change in the world.

The tiniest spark of hope from one to another is capable of restoring wholeness, and is often the other’s only chance for survival. A open ear, a quiet mouth, a hand extended in compassion is the life-giving bridge between isolation and inclusion. This is challenging but necessary work.Open your circle and allow yourself to be the wick that carries the flame of Christ’s love into the world.

Today’s readings can be found here.