The gospel reading for today is probably very familiar to us.
Also, it was part of the reading on the first of February when we celebrated Candlemas.
So it is a legitimate question why we are presented with the same text today.
Well, this time the emphasis is not so much on the start of Christ’s ministry, but on the inevitable suffering that was to follow, not only for Christ himself, but for his mother as well, and indeed for everyone in Israel. For many in Israel would stumble over the offensiveness of the cross, and those who would follow Christ would also have to bear their cross.
Today it is Mothering Sunday, and I can still hear Fr. Brian Richards say that this is not the same as Mothers’ day. The origin lies in the 16th century when people for one day returned to the place where they grew up, visiting their “mother church” and their family. Often this was the only time when they were able to visit the family. This made the whole day a somewhat bittersweet event, both for the parents and for the children. And this is also the atmosphere in our text. On the one hand great things are spoken about Jesus, on the other hand this greatness will sharply highlight the imperfections in this world.
When we love someone, we want the very best for that person, especially when it is our own child. I think that goes for fathers as well as mothers, although mothers are often more involved in the caring side of the upbringing. That very love then makes us vulnerable when things do not go as we would hope they do. When a child does not receive the proper care, is misled, pestered or looked down upon. When there is insufficient food, clothing or shelter for your child, that is one of the most vexing things on earth. And when the child is older, it can still hurt the parents when his or her relationship breaks, when a dream is not realized, when a reputation is destroyed or when a disease or disability appears.
And then of course the death of a child is one of the worst things. This happened to a fellow-student of mine, who is an ordained minister. His faith was severely tested. In the end it has made him stronger and more compassionate, but that does not go for everyone. It also happened to Joan Kroon, who was buried a few weeks ago. At the memorial service the daughter was remembered together with her mother. When Jacob was led to believe that his son Joseph was dead, he refused to be comforted and he said, “I will continue to mourn until I join my son in the grave”. The loss or the pain of a child can cast a shadow over our life. For Mary, this would be a test as well. The tears of Mary have become a symbol for all this pain. The number of composers and the variety of performances of the Stabat Mater are a testimony to the universality of the suffering of parents over their children.
But let us look a little more closely at the actual text. It appears that the clause “a sword will pierce your own soul too” is added as an afterthought. But in the Greek original the order of the words is different. The last words of the sentence are actually, “so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed”. I like this more literal translation, as it gives meaning to our suffering.
Everyone who listens to the Stabat Mater will sooner or later have an emotional response. When we suffer, we find out who our friends are, and who don’t really care that much. And it probably helps those who are not sure how to react, to develop their compassion. Could this be what is meant by “the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed”?
Well, I think it is true that we can learn both from our own pain and from the suffering of others, although we don’t always use those opportunities. Actually, it is a great mercy that we can learn through the experiences of others, so that we don’t have to experience everything ourselves and find out the hard way. But for this to work, we have to look and listen carefully. What do we learn when we see or read about someone else’s suffering? Unfortunately, many people are quick to draw conclusions, like:
“They probably did something to deserve it”
“They are used to those conditions, so for them it is no so bad as it would be for us”
“In the end we all get our share of suffering”
“It’s all right because it couldn’t happen here”
“Surely they are exaggerating”
“They should have saved themselves, as we all have to, but they are too primitive”
“Improvements never come without pain and effort”
“It is because people have insufficient faith in the free market…or in Islam… or in some leader”
“It is because they expect too much in a short time”
“It is because of fundamentalism” (and nowadays we often hear that all religion is to blame).
“It’s because they hold on to old-fashioned ideas and don’t embrace fresh ideas and change”
All of these judgements are at least one-sided, insensitive and often just plain false.
And because the diagnosis is wrong, suffering, if anything, increases rather than diminishes.
Some people think that having an open mind is enough, and can’t see how they are manipulated. Some people put their trust in smaller and cheaper, but more dictatorial structures of government. Some people rely on tighter security measures, punishments, trade embargo’s and weapons. Usually they only make matters worse.
In the Hindu religion and early Buddhist philosophy suffering has always been an important subject. Their wise men recognized that much suffering is caused by the desire to have something we think is lacking or by fear of losing that which we think we possess. The answer was to fight all desires and to feel no attachment to anything or anyone. Apart from the fact that it proved quite difficult if not impossible to eliminate one’s desires, hopes, ambitions and attachments, it did not exactly encourage improvement of the standard of living. Much later, Buddhists discovered that they had overlooked something important, namely compassion. Since all beings are ultimately connected, we can never be entirely happy or complete as long as there are even a few creatures which are still suffering. And in that sense it did not really matter if that suffering was caused by desires or disease or poverty or whatever.
A famous modern day Buddhist monk wrote, “Someone who is angry is someone who doesn’t know how to handle their suffering. They are the first victim of their suffering, and you are actually the second victim. Once we can see this, compassion is born in our heart and anger evaporates. We don’t want to punish them anymore, but instead we want to say something or do something to help them suffer less.” I entirely agree, but how can we get ourselves and others to acknowledge that we are often our own worst enemies, that sin is everywhere, and not only in the other person? And if we see this, and compassion is born, how to really start with a clean slate?
This is where Christ comes in. He not only gave us a supreme example of “how to handle suffering”, He also confronted us with our individual and collective sinfulness. Mankind even proved to be capable of killing Him who was sent by God and who was without sin. Every killing of innocent civilians should remind us of that; every theft of pension money; every plundering of resources and our own indifference.
But He also granted us forgiveness, so that we do not have to be stopped by our past mistakes – and so that we in turn can forgive others. It breaks the vicious circle of accusations and distrust. It reinstates the value of human beings over the deceptions of the powers of darkness in this world.
Yes, Christ is the one by whom the inner thoughts of many will be revealed, leading either to their transformation into compassionate human beings in the image of God, or to a hardening of heart that is undeniably evil and self-destructive. And yes, He will finish the work that He has started, the Lamb of God, who takes away – who erases – the failures of the world. Who brings us back to where we were raised, or meant to be raised, our true home, our place of divine “mothering”.
Therefore this Sunday is actually the least gloomy one in Lent. In Latin it is called, Laetare Sunday, Laetare meaning “Reyoice”. The name comes from Is. 66:10 which reads, “Rejoyce, O Jerusalem. Rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow”. On this Sunday, some priests are dressed in pink and, by way of exception, flowers are allowed in church in spite of Lent.
No, our sorrow will not be over, particularly not our sorrow over the suffering of others, and a sword still pierces our heart at the thought of what they did to our Saviour, and to many of His brothers and sisters. But the same Lord teaches and loves us. He taught us not only to endure suffering, but to reduce its power by not allowing it to cause more suffering due to thoughtless and angry reactions. He loves us, enabling us to continue and grow in spite of any new mistakes or negligence on our part.
Thus St. Paul could write in his letter to the Colossians, “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience”. In the same text he also draws our attention to gratitude for what we do have, and particularly for those things that cannot be taken away from us. And that includes the compassion and wisdom that is still to be found in many, inside and outside of the Christian church.
May the words, the love and compassion, and the spirit of Christ dwell richly in us.