More Than We Can Handle?

“God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.”

At least that is what many Christians say in the face of trial or loss. But is it actually helpful? And is it true? I believe it is rather unhelpful, and only partially true.

I’ve written before on the importance of learning to sit with sadness – something we tend to avoid! It’s hard enough when it’s our own sorrow. We’d rather plunge into busyness or fixing or numbing rather than face our grief. But it’s especially hard when we are in the presence of other people’s pain. That’s when the advice or clichés come out!

First, we’ll try to fix it – if there seems to be a way of fixing. We’ll be “generous” and offer to help; we’ll make suggestions for books or podcasts; or we’ll compare this person’s pain with our own or that of a friend – anything to help make the pain go away, because we don’t like to feel it, and we definitely don’t like to feel powerless.

In some cases (tragedies or definitive losses), there is nothing we can do. When fixing doesn’t work, we start grabbing for clichés. Surely one of them will be the magic wand that will make this feeling of powerlessness go away! Surely one of them will help this person feel better so that I can feel better.

Are these clichés helpful? No, I would say not. They often have the effect of “blaming the victim” or shaming others for feeling the way they feel. Rather than compassion (“suffering with”), clichés are a way of stepping back from the pain of others and leaving them to suffer alone.

I suppose there is a time and a place for distracting or diverting from pain. Perhaps we are in a survival situation and lack the time, resources, or energy to engage head on. If mere survival is the best we can hope for at the moment, then we can indeed turn to our arsenal of distractions and find ways to minimize the pain.

Even when we are ready to face heartache, we are still human, meaning we are limited. We can’t face it all the time. It can be appropriate to take a break from our grieving, laugh together at a joke or a movie, plunge into a hobby or game, and so forth. A cliché could be helpful as permission to take a short break from the pain.

But if our Christian families and communities are unable or unwilling to accompany people as they face pain and heartache, then where can they go? Jesus does not want his Church to be a place of mere survival, but God’s own hospital in which we experience healing, redemption, restoration, and total transformation. That only happens by facing our heartache, taking up our Cross, following Jesus, dying amidst our powerlessness, watching and waiting, and experiencing the newness of the Resurrection. If we desire to be “helpful” to those in pain, we must first walk this path ourselves – as Jesus did. We can’t give what we ourselves have not experienced.

Is there any truth to this expression, that “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle”? Sort of.  Here is what the apostle Paul says:

“No trial has come to you but what is human. God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

As you can see, the cliché is an oversimplification and distortion of what Scripture actually says.

Paul doesn’t attribute our trials directly to God’s agency. God permits or allows us to endure trials, but they are human. They are the result of a misuse of human freedom – by our first parents, by others who have caused harm, and by our own sins. Directly or indirectly, all trials in this life are the result of human sin. God allows these consequences because he has entrusted us with dignity, freedom, and  real authority amidst our stewardship.

God is faithful. He is absolutely committed to accompanying us through every trial. He will never abandon us, and will never leave us without every means of assistance that we truly need to move through the trial.

God provides a way out. There is a true exit to the trial. We tend to hunker down in our panic rooms, avoiding the heartache – and ultimately getting stuck. But Jesus himself, God’s own beloved Son, has plunged into our trials. He has gone there first, and has opened up a path to new life. If we follow him faithfully, if we share in his suffering and death, we will experience a radical newness and expansiveness – and not just “one day” in heaven.

As we see in the saints, there is an amazing foretaste of this newness that comes even in this life. If you study their lives, you will find a stunning diversity of humans, all with two common features: (1) They endured enormous trials; (2) They were incredibly joyful followers of Jesus.

Like them, we will be able to bear our trials: because God is faithful to his promises, because Jesus has blazed a trail for us, because he accompanies us, and because he won’t allow us to be tested beyond our strength. Therefore, we can hope.

Hope is the answer in the face of heartache. Hope refuses to be killed by suffering (or by clichés!). Hope perseveres – not by naïve optimism, not by secular stratagem, but by waiting persistently for our faithful God to fulfill all his promises. This is the hope of mother Mary standing at the foot of the Cross on Good Friday and at the tomb on Holy Saturday – believing God’s promise, staying present, enduring, pondering, and waiting. The joy of resurrection always comes to those who abide in hope.

May we be people of hope, this Lent and always!

Jesus’ Story and Our Story

My original title today was “The Logos and our logos.” No good. The reader would start thinking of the Nike logo or the McDonald’s logo. I could go with the actual Greek alphabet and say “the λόγος and our λόγος” – but that would scare some away.

Logos (λόγος) is the Greek word for “word.” But it can mean so many other things: reason, explanation, discourse, account, sentence, meaning, language, communication, and much more. It’s one of those Bible words that simply can’t be translated without losing much of the meaning (much of the λόγος!).

The beginning of John’s Gospel dramatically presents Jesus as the eternal λόγος, who was with the Father in the beginning, and who is himself God. He is the spoken Word through whom all things came to be. That Word becomes flesh and makes his dwelling among us. That Word gives purpose and meaning to our otherwise meaningless existence. He makes it possible for our life to be worth something, and opens us up to share in his eternal life.

That’s John 1. Today I want to reflect on Hebrews 4:

“Indeed, the Word (λόγος) of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart. No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account (λόγος)” (Hebrews 4:12-13).

I had a great “aha!” moment this summer on retreat when I was praying my way through the Letter to the Hebrews. Over the last 12 years, I’ve been slowly soaking in the New Testament on my annual retreats. During each hour of meditation, I read and meditate on the English translation of a chapter or two at a time. Then I go back and look at the Greek.

In this case, I was dumbstruck that this oft-quoted passage begins and ends with the word “word” (λόγος). Jesus is the eternal Word of God, living and effective, penetrating soul and spirit, laying bare our hearts. In his presence, my own λόγος comes to full light. I am part of a story. My human life is a “word” in its own right. My story will be told; my “word” will come to full light – possibly in this life and for sure in the next. Jesus, the eternal λόγος, promises to take all that is buried or hidden and expose it fully (Luke 8:17).

His story is a judgment upon my story and your story – not in the sense that he is eager to dole out condemnation. Quite the opposite! He did not come to condemn the world, but to save it. He does not will the death of the sinner, but that we turn to him and live! But the only way for our guilt and our shame to be healed is for the entirety of our story to be brought into his light. So long as we keep parts of it buried away or hidden, we cannot be a whole person. The conflict that is playing itself out in the drama of your story and my story cannot be resolved until Christ, the great protagonist, is allowed to be present to all of it.

This is why we Catholics put the Paschal Mystery at the center of all things. Every Sunday we gather to remember and participate anew in the saving event that is the suffering, dying, and rising of Jesus. Every year we enter the Paschal Triduum – the holy three days that is one single celebration – to remember THE story – the only story, the one true story, without which our human experience cannot be redeemed or resolved.

Hebrews 4:13 is typically translated in English as us giving an account in the presence of Jesus. Literally in Greek this passage says “All things are naked and uncovered to the eyes of him to whom belongs our λόγος.” The vulnerability of this experience is indeed unsettling. But deep down, don’t we all ache to be known, seen, heard, and truly understood?  Only the eternal λόγος can make that happen – and only by uncovering and laying bare all that is within us!

We belong to him – not in the sense that he owns us, but that we are ordered to him in a relationship – both in creation and in redemption. The original creation happened through him. Through God’s Word all was made. God spoke us humans into being, breathed his Spirit into us, and declared us very good. He gave us stewardship of the entire cosmos. We failed. He never stopped loving us. He promised to send the woman and her offspring to crush the head of the serpent. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The Word died of the Cross and rose from the dead. The Word promises to take our tangled mess, to expose and uncover all of it – and to heal, restore, and gloriously transform us.

This, I think, is also the meaning behind Simeon’s cryptic words to the Virgin Mary: that a sword will pierce her heart so that the hearts of many may be laid bare (Luke 2:35). She is the New Eve, the promised woman. Her heart is fully pierced, fully vulnerable, and fully exposed – for sure at the Cross on Good Friday – but actually at many moments. Jesus declares “Behold, your mother!” so that each of us can receive her fierce and tender motherly care throughout the rather unsettling process of our own hearts being pierced by the Word, exposed, healed, and transformed. His eternal Love is both fierce and tender, and it is the only way.

Jesus does not expect this transformation to happen all at once. It’s a gradual process that happens over time. Like any great story, ours has moments of triumph, moments of loss and heartache, moments of betrayal, much adversity, and many setbacks. At every chapter, we can remember that THE story has already been told, and the victory has already been won – in the person of the λόγος. His story gets to become our story. Will we, like Mary, say “yes”?

Failure IS an Option

FDo you ever experience a fear of failure? I know I do!

Sometimes it’s a stew of anxiety, simmering throughout the day. Other times it’s a sudden eruption of panic or peevishness amidst what had seemed a moment of calm. When I pay attention and reflect, I can see that there is a significant fear of failure. It doesn’t drive or dominate me nearly as much as it used to, but it still shows up.

I already shared with you some highlights of Fr. Jacques Philippe’s recent book Priestly Fatherhood. Perhaps his greatest insight for us all (priests and laity alike) is when he connects our fear of failure with the rift in our childlike trust in God as a fierce and tender Father. God is a Father who will unfailingly provide for our needs. He will never reject or abandon us. But in our woundedness it often doesn’t feel that way! From the very beginning of human history, the evil one has been tirelessly at work to rupture our relationships – with God the Father, with each other, and with ourselves. Shame is the devil’s single greatest weapon. Through the lies of shame, he enticed Adam and Eve to hide from God and to protect themselves from each other.

I see shame as the shadow side of communion. It’s not inherently evil (after all, the devil can’t create!). Shame actually helps us and many other mammals to survive. If they get cut off from their pack, they will die. If we humans are on the verge of a rupture of communion, shame will speak up! Unfortunately, that shame signal is so easily exploited by anyone who would manipulate (the devil being chief among them!). We are created for the purpose of sharing intimately in joyful communion. We are meant to belong and to experience that safe connection with the Father and with each other. Shame blares its alarm whenever there is a threat of rupture. It does indeed feel like a matter of life or death!

The problem is that what initially serves our survival ultimately leads us into a wasteland of isolation and ungodly self-protection. Our survival becomes exhausting! As Fr. Philippe puts it, modern man, no longer looking to God as a Father, is “condemned to success.” There is no room for failure because there is no longer a loving Father there to give us protection, freedom, encouragement, and space to keep learning and growing from our mistakes.

How do you handle it when you fail? Or when others around you fail? Are you both able to go closer to the failure and talk about it? Why or why not?

When I feel like I have failed or am about to fail, I have a tendency power up or withdraw, depending on the situation. Both are ways of distancing my shame from the other person. Both isolate rather than heal and repair.

If I listen attentively and notice in God’s presence, there are two main messages to my shame. It either warns me against being seen and exposed as a failure, or it warns me that others will flee from me and leave me alone to face it all. When both show up, it can be a challenging push-pull in relationships – inviting others to come closer, and then pushing them back away when they get too close. In both cases, it’s not so much a conscious strategy as an instinctive reaction. In both cases there is an ongoing invitation to trust God the Father and begin maturing as I abide in healthy and meaningful relationships.

Fear of failure was familiar to the twelve apostles. Just think of how they handled the Passion of Jesus. When Peter first heard of it, he swiftly forbade his Lord to speak any further of it – prompting Jesus to respond, “Get behind me Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Matthew 16:23). Nor did Peter have it figured out during Holy Week! He, at least, stays close(ish) to Jesus – rather than running and fleeing like the others. But he denies him three times. When Jesus begins surprising each of them on Easter Sunday, they are downcast, discouraged, and afraid. They were not yet ready to handle the “failure” of the Cross.

If God is not a loving Father who is faithful and true to his promises, then the Cross is indeed both a scandal and utter foolishness. Jesus willingly faced the Cross – though not without sweating blood first and begging the Father for another option! How did he do it? Ultimately, Jesus was secure in his identity as the beloved Son of the Father. He trusted his Father’s promise of Resurrection. The “failure” of the Cross was ultimately a great victory. It was truly “Good” Friday as Jesus crushed the head of the serpent. The very moment in which the evil one grasped at his triumph was a singular moment of human love and trust. It was the moment in which Jesus invested meaning and hope into what otherwise truly would be a hopeless and miserable human existence following the Fall.

Jesus is Lord and Savior and Messiah – not in a way that erases human sin or suffering, but in a way that transforms it. He opens up a healing path for us. When he says to Peter, “Get behind me,” he is not saying “Get out of my sight!” Rather, he is inviting Peter (and us) to take up our Cross and follow him.

For us who are redeemed by his blood and in the process of being restored and sanctified, taking up our Cross and Jesus often means failing and learning, failing and growing, failing and repairing. As Winston Churchill once put it, “Success in not final, failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”

Will you and I have the courage to fail? Will we allow space for failure – in ourselves, in our families, in our workplaces, and in our church communities? Will we meet failure with both tenderness and truth-telling? In the person of Jesus, we see that God is clearly drawn towards our failure and our littleness. He enters into it, neither shaming us nor excusing us. He helps us to trust and to grow. May we receive that gift and learn to do the same!

Paschal Triduum

We will soon celebrate the Paschal Triduum. We will enter the holiest three days of the year. We will remember the dramatic story in which Jesus redeemed and renewed us.

“Paschal” is another word for Passover. That connection is lost when we use the common English word “Easter.” On Resurrection Sunday, my Spanish-speaking parishioners will say to me, “¡Feliz Pascua!” which literally means “Happy Passover!”

For us Christians, the Passover observance has been forever changed by Jesus. No longer do we spread the blood of a slaughtered lamb on the doorposts and lintels of our homes. Jesus offers himself as the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He willingly becomes the lamb, once slain, who now lives, never to die again. His dying and rising are one single offering to the Father. They are now, for us, one single celebration.

In terms of calendar time, the Triduum spans three days, beginning the evening of Holy Thursday and concluding the evening of Resurrection Sunday. However, it remains one single event, a seamless moment in time.

Scripture scholars distinguish chronos and kairos, two Greek words for “time.” Chronological time marches along with steady precision, and with utter disregard for our lived human experience. Sometimes time can’t move quickly enough, as on a Friday afternoon when students and employees stare at the sluggish clock. At other times the hours, weeks, or even years seem to be racing past us. By contrast, there are kairos moments within the passage of time. Whether such a moment lasts a few hours or a few months, we remember it as one significant event or era. The Sacred Triduum is THE kairos event of human history.

For many of the disciples, it was largely a trauma event. They abruptly lost their Lord, and found themselves falling away from him. Within moments, they experienced dread, doubt, confusion, betrayal, loss, guilt, and shame. Trauma has its own sense of timelessness. When we feel powerless, it seems like the anguish will never end.

Jesus transforms our human experience. He willingly enters the depths of human drama and human trauma, conquering every single moment with perfect love.

For some of you, “Triduum” is a new word and a new concept. Others among you have been observing it liturgically for decades. Either way, I invite you to gaze and ponder afresh what transpired during those three days. This three-day event is willed by God to become the very heart of every human story.

DAY ONE

Remember that in Jewish tradition, the new day begins at sunset. Therefore, Day One of the Triduum includes Jesus’ suffering, dying and burial. He initiates this new Passover event by sharing a meal with his disciples. They spend much of the meal debating who among them is the greatest. He declares the bread and wine to be his own flesh and blood and commands them to commemorate this offering. He prays to his Father in the garden. He watches his friends abandon him as he faces arrest, trial, torture, mocking, and crucifixion. His physical torment alone is enough to move human hearts to repentance. But his emotional and spiritual suffering were so much more intense. He willingly takes on our own infirmities, freely entering every traumatizing human experience: abandonment, rejection, the violation of his body, shaming comments, and a felt powerlessness. His cry to his Father gives voice to every human heart that ever has or ever will endure such experiences: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” But unlike each of us, Jesus remains faithful and true. He surrenders in trust; he holds out hope; he loves to the end. Day One concludes with his burial and the sealing of the tomb, just in time for the Sabbath.

DAY TWO

Day Two is so easily forgotten by Christians. Jesus’ body remains in the tomb on a Sabbath Day like no other.

Imagine what Holy Saturday was like for the various followers of Jesus. Many had abandoned him or denied him. Imagine the shame they felt! The gospels don’t specify what Peter and the others were up to on this day, but we know that by Sunday most of them were on voluntary lockdown, cowering in the cenacle.

Most of them had their messianic hopes crushed. Despite Jesus’ miracles, parables, and constant proclamation of the Kingdom of God, each follower continued to clutch a more tangible kind of salvation – deliverance from the Romans or restoring the Kingdom of Israel.

Others, like Mary Magdalene, were actively seeking him, like the beloved in the Song of Songs, going out into the night and earnestly searching after the one her heart loves. Desiring and not possessing is an agony like no other – the agony of Hope.

There is also the Hope of Mary, Jesus’ own mother, who had spent thirty years with him, had stood with him at the foot of the Cross, and had always pondered his words and events in her heart. She knew his promises better than anyone.  As at the Annunciation, as at Bethlehem, as during the flight into Egypt, as when seeking and finding Jesus in the Temple, Mary believed that God was ushering in a new and greater human experience. But she couldn’t imagine what it was going to be like. She persevered in Hope. Scripture doesn’t tell us about what it was like when Mary encountered the Risen Jesus, following the agonizing Hope of Day Two. But we can imagine the surprise and the joy.

In Catholic life, each Saturday is a day of devotional remembrance of Mary. We forget that it is her day because Holy Saturday is the day on which she persevered in Hope.

DAY THREE

Jesus rises on the Third Day, during the night preceding the dawn of Resurrection Sunday. No other human being directly witnesses his Resurrection, but the encounters explode, like kernels of corn beginning to pop – at first one by one, and then rapid fire. In every encounter, the Risen Jesus catches them by surprise, and fills their hearts with unimaginable joy. Their narrow and preconceived ideas about the messiah are shattered against the event of his dying and rising. He helps them to understand how everything in the Law and Prophets – indeed everything about our human story – points to this new Passover. This event of his dying and rising (and the agonizing wait in between) is what gives meaning and purpose to your story and mine.

Even still, you and I have a tendency to bypass the Paschal Mystery. Resurrection sounds nice, but what about fully entering with Jesus into suffering, dying, and an agonizing wait at the tomb? Like the characters in the Bible, we prefer perfectionistic rule-following, secular political solutions, or to the old standbys of pleasure, prestige, and power.

This Holy Week, may we allow our minds and hearts to be reawakened to the Faith, Hope, and Love that the Sacred Triduum offers us.

The Descent of Jesus

We enter another Holy Week. Jesus’ hour has come. Although he begs his Father to allow the cup of suffering to pass, in the end Jesus freely and willingly plunges into his Passion for our sake. He drinks the cup to the dregs, descending fully into the depths of human misery, indeed into the very hell that our misused human freedom has “created.”

I love this quotation from Charles de Foucauld (taken from André Daigneault’s The Way of Imperfection):

“All his life, Jesus only descended: descending in his incarnation; descending in becoming a small child; descending in obedience; descending in becoming poor, abandoned, persecuted, tortured; descending in reaching the last place.”

All this descent of Jesus is “for our sake” – as we profess in the Creed.  He desires to redeem us and save us. The redemption he brings is so much more than standing in our place and paying the price on the Cross. Some Christians have a rather narrow or distorted view of atonement that almost paints God as a vengeful and petty deity whose wrath can be appeased only by blood. Jesus reveals our Father to be eternally kind. To be sure, there is a great sense of justice in Jesus paying the price, but that standing in our place says much more about God fully respecting the gift and dignity of human freedom (and its real consequences) than it says about him being in any way demanding.

Jesus tells us why he has come from heaven “for our sake” – to seek out and save what is lost (Luke 19:10). I wrote last time about the great dignity of our human nature, even after the fall. We all have deep and dark places in our hearts in which we feel broken and shattered, marred and disfigured, unlovely and unlovable. Jesus reveals to us that there is no place too deep or too dark for him to enter. His desire to descend is unlimited – or rather, limited only by our resistance to receiving him.

There is so much that is comforting in this message. Jesus is not deterred by how seriously and how often each of us has turned our backs on him. He prays for his persecutors. He does not flinch when his closest companions misunderstand him, abandon him, deny him, or betray him. At Peter’s third denial, Jesus turns toward him with a gaze of kindness that incites Peter to rush outside and shed bitter tears.

The deeper truth of Holy Week is that Jesus desires to descend fully and deeply into the worst of our human experiences in order to rescue us, heal us, transform us, and exalt us. Hebrews 5 tells us that Jesus not only offered prayers and supplications for us, but did so with louds sobs and tears. It was not simply a matter of paying a price. Rather, he freely and willingly united himself with every human experience of misery and suffering – every loss, every betrayal, every rejection, every abandonment, every single moment of darkness. Jesus descended.

Philippians 2 describes the dynamics. Jesus, though truly divine, freely chooses to descend, to empty himself completely and totally for our sake. He is therefore exalted and raised above every other creature. He does this, not for his own glory and exaltation (he had no need of it!), but “for our sake” – in order that where he is, we also may be (John 14:3).

Nor does Jesus descend in order to rescue and exalt the “good” people or the “good enough” people. We are all the lost sheep, the lost coin, his lost sons and daughters. Remember whom he chose to hang around with the most – the poor, the lame, the crippled, and the outcasts – including those considered to be the worst of sinners.

I know in my own life I have often vacillated back and forth between a puffed-up confidence (as though I “have it all together”) and a deep discouragement. In both cases, I am somehow trying to be my own savior. Meanwhile, I need only allow Christ to complete his descent into the places of my heart in which I feel the most desperate and discouraged, and his love begins to transform all.

True Christian humility always brings with it a twofold conviction: (1) My own radical poverty; and (2) unshakable confidence in God’s eternal mercy. This is the humility we see in the Virgin Mary and her Magnificat – her song of praise to God in the presence of Elizabeth (Luke 1:46-55). She deeply understands that all is gift, proclaiming God as her savior – AND she eagerly praises the amazing things he is doing in her and through her, so great that all generations henceforth will call her blessed.

At the Cross, Mary freely shares in the sufferings of her Son, having compassion not only on him, but on every lost child of God who stands in need of mercy. Her Son loves us, and therefore so does she. The fact that many of us keep messing things up does not for a moment cause him to falter in his descent, nor her to falter in her deep motherly compassion on those who suffer with her Son.

How many of us attempt (in our prayers or piety) to try to “go up” to God? How willing are we to be truly vulnerable, to let him see us fully, and to love us where we most need his love? Do we not sometimes take the lead of Adam and Eve in the fall, hiding ourselves from God and covering our nakedness?  Toxic shame is one of the devil’s favorite tools to convince us that no one would ever love us as we are.

The descent of Jesus says otherwise. He desires every piece and fragment of our broken hearts. There is no limit to his desire to descend.

Learning to Sit with Sadness

The apostle Paul exhorts us, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). Doing so enriches the human experience and makes the love of Christ visibly present.

Unfortunately, heeding Paul’s advice is not so simple as it sounds. Rather than rejoicing, we are sometimes saddened at the successes of others. Rather than weeping, we sometimes avoid accompanying others in their misery. Sure, we’ll send them a sympathy card or drop off some food. We’ll say some pleasant-sounding words like “Everything happens for a reason” or “He’s in a better place.” But one or two or twelve month later, when the anguish is even worse, they find few friends still willing to be with them in their grief.

Sitting with others in their sadness can be one of the most unsettling things to do – especially when we are powerless to do anything about it. It is so much easier to throw a cliché at the unpleasant emotions, as though uttering an incantation that will magically make us all live happily ever after. The truth is that we are unsettled and are trying to protect ourselves from the mess of the other person’s experience.

I have written before on the importance of healthy grieving, and our human tendency to avoid it. Whatever our pain or loss may be, our human misery will be too much to bear if we try to do it alone. God made us for communion with himself and with each other. It is within healthy community that healing happens.

Unfortunately, healthy community can be hard to find. All too often, when it comes to grieving well, we encounter dysfunction in our families and even in our Christian churches. The more challenging emotions like anger or guilt or grief are unwelcome and avoided. They are seen as an evil to be eliminated, rather than a healthy part of the human experience. This extermination of unwelcome emotions can be done in a more abusive way (“Stop crying, or I’ll give you a reason to cry!”) or a more subtle way (“There are other people have it much worse…”). The unspoken message is “you shouldn’t feel that way.” But sometimes we do. It’s just a fact.

If we want to understand what it truly means to be human, we look to Jesus (the New Adam) and to Mary (the New Eve). They model so many virtues for us, including a refusal to shortcut the hardest human experiences like sadness.

“Jesus wept” (John 11:33). It’s the shortest verse of the Bible, and one of the most meaningful: Even though he is the resurrection and the life, even though he knew that he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead after four days in the tomb, Jesus wept. He wept over his dead friend. He wept with those who were weeping. He didn’t avoid or minimize the healthy human experience of grieving.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus became “sorrowful even to death” (Matthew 26:38). This was not a dismay at his own immanent death. Rather, he was freely taking upon himself the full depths of human suffering and misery – drinking it to the dregs. He felt in his heart every agony, every sorrow, every wound, every tragedy – the greatest of which is sin. He entered into our sadness and freely offered our human condition to his Father, crying out from the Cross the plea of every agonizing human heart: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

In the Letter to the Hebrews, we learn that Jesus’ empathy with human sorrow led him to the point of loud sobs and tears (Hebrews 5:7). Is that not what is popularly described today as an “ugly cry”? You know, the kind of uncontrollable sobbing that we suppress or avoid or feel deeply embarrassed about? Apparently, Jesus wasn’t worried about sobbing uncontrollably or oozing a little snot. Most of us are much more cautious and self-protective. As the poet T.S. Eliot used to say, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”

The problem with painful emotions is that, well, they’re painful. We’d rather avoid the experience of powerlessness in the face of others’ suffering. It’s easier to flee or to fix. We “flee” by avoiding those around us who are suffering in an unbearable way, like the priest and Levite in the Good Samaritan story. Our withdrawing causes their experience of abandonment and isolation to become like that of the suffering servant foretold by the prophet Isaiah: “He was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, knowing pain, like one from whom people turn their face…” (Isaiah 53:3).

“Fixing” is no better than fleeing. Many Christian families and faith communities, in their avoidance of “ugly” emotions, try to make it all better with a pious saying or an invitation into busyness and distraction. Fixing is not grieving, and it doesn’t actually comfort anyone. When Job was in agony, he didn’t need fixing; he needed someone to sit on the dung pile and be sad with him.

On Good Friday, Jesus drank the chalice of human suffering to the full. He refused to numb his pain with the gall offered him. Likewise, his mother Mary stood at the foot of the Cross (John 19:25). She suffered together with him, refusing to avoid or escape.

On Holy Saturday, Jesus descended into hell, and Mary continued watching and waiting in sorrowful hope. Perhaps she had some inkling of the resurrection to come – but surely not of when or how. Hope is hard. We know that God is faithful, but during the darkest moments we have no idea how long the suffering will last, or how our prayers will be answered. We are tempted to take a shortcut and avoid the full experience of Good Friday and Holy Saturday.

The joy of Easter Sunday indeed comes as promised – but often in ways that catch us by surprise. Intense sorrow is no obstacle to intense joy – quite the opposite. It is only when we learn to stop hardening our hearts and protecting ourselves that we become capable, not only of embracing the “ugly” human experiences that we’d rather avoid, but also of experiencing the boundless joy of the resurrection. May Jesus open our hearts and help us to empathize with each other as we watch and wait in hope.

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