Actors portray the Crucifixion during the Stations of the Cross at World Youth Day in Sydney in this 2008 photo.
CNS file photo
'How Long, O Lord? How long before you come and save us?'
Rev. John Roche, SDB
I have just gotten off the phone with a dear friend whose twin brother is fighting a stage four cancer that has ravaged his body. This poor man faces chemo treatments and a long road of suffering that may, at best, give him five years. A life-long athlete, his young 48 year old body is failing him. His wife and his twin are in shock.
I have friends who are divorcing and facing much pain and anguish from both sides of the struggle and it seems no peaceful resolution is possible. The rupture is widening into longtime friendships, family relationships and more. It is painful to stand and witness this crumbling wall.
Suffering, pain, separation, anger, loss and death are inevitable in this journey of life, but nothing can ever adequately prepare most of us on this path. We know that these are inescapable realities, but something is built into us to look for exceptions and escape clauses. How human and fragile we are, really.
Many years ago, Franco Zeffirelli gave to the world his cinema masterpiece "Jesus of Nazareth" which has been played on television and cinema screens for more than 40 years. Bringing his talent for staging opera, Zeffirelli created the story of Jesus in masterful and colorful vignettes combining biblical scholarship, artistic framing and wove more than a story of a man into a classic and moving encounter with Christ.
These many years over, I still visibly return to scenes from this work of art. And when I encounter people caught in the throes of great suffering and pain, I recall a vivid scene from "Jesus of Nazareth" depicting a child Jesus at his bar mitzvah. The men and the elders of the synagogue community are dancing around the newly initiated young man while the mothers and daughters stand behind the screened area outside of the sanctuary. The festivities are interrupted by the sounds of crying and screaming coming from outside. The men and the women run out into the humble square where the town meets the synagogue to find a storm of Roman soldiers terrorizing the village. The men circle the soldiers on horseback setting up a barrier from the women and children pressed against the buildings in fear. A cloud of dust still swirls in the air as an invading officer shakes his fist in warning; he reminds the villagers that it is the right of the Roman occupation to take bread and whatever it needs.
Frightened mothers and children continue to weep as the lead soldier signals his troops to move out. As the soldiers push their way through the circle of men, the camera zooms to a child standing behind the men—the child Jesus peering between the arms of the men of the town. The camera zooms to his watching and worried eyes as another young man rushes into the square, falls to his knees, lifts his hands to the heavens and cries, "How long, O Lord? How long before you come and save us?"
What a masterful and poignant scene! I will never forget it. How profound that this boy, who will become our Savior, absorbs this reality of pain and suffering, feels the anguish and anger and fear of his own people and sees the power of evil.
We know that many times in his journey toward Jerusalem, Jesus pointed out clearly that he would be handed over to the leaders, arrested, tortured and put to death before rising from the dead. Perhaps we are more like Peter than we would like to admit.
Peter's reaction to this prediction is one of revulsion and Peter vehemently insists to Jesus that they would not let any harm come to Jesus. Shockingly, Jesus turns on Peter for "thinking as men do" and not as God does and rebukes him as the tempter luring him from his mission.
How often I sit in our chapel carrying the needs of so many people in my heart. How many of their voices I hear making the same cry, "How long, O Lord?" And quite often, the chapel returns silence to those persons and needs rising before my mind and heart. How I wish I had the right word, the proper promise or the easy solution to bring healing and peace to so many suffering in life. It is all right, I believe, to want to be able to help. It is also acceptable, I believe, to "let God have it" with as much honesty as we need. Yes, God can take it. God, I believe, wants our honesty.
So in the end, I often choose silence and accompaniment for my friends in pain. Who am I to explain the mysterious will of God or decipher the fate of any one person? And in the sharing and in the silence, I try not to rush in with my own expectations of God. It is much harder to stand in silence and in faith than to try to "fix" anything. Too many of us in the ministering business are uncomfortable with silence and mystery and pain. We are called to be faithful witnesses, not repairmen.
Jesus witnessed human misery and tragedy and then took it on willingly. He insists that no one takes his life from him, but that he has freely laid down his life by his own choosing. It is in this belief that we discover what true accompaniment really is: our God continues to live in and through our every pain and loss. There is a mystery here of sharing his redemptive suffering and that mystery extends far beyond the passing moments of this life.
Let us all, then, learn the power of loving others by listening closely to their cries. Let us learn to be silent and stand in mystery with them. We will be called upon to stand at the many crosses of life for many persons, proving our love by not running away into our own security.
Certainly we must pray. Miracles still happen. But the greatest miracle is the loving presence of a caring friend when there is nothing left to say or do. Together we journey while trusting in the one who "can make all things new." And who came to give us life to the full. The fullness of life is not a pain-free life, but a shared life experienced in enduring love!
(Father John Roche, SDB, is director of the Institute of Salesian Studies at Don Bosco Hall, an affiliate of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, Berkeley.)
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