Ezra 1:1-4; 3:1-4 & 10-13; Luke 2: 25-38
Today on our journey through the Holy Land we find ourselves in Jerusalem. I used to think – how on earth did Joseph and Mary get to Jerusalem from Bethlehem in such a short time? But they are literally right next door to each other. You leave Bethlehem today, and you’re in East Jerusalem. Of course the cities would have been smaller then, but they could have made the trip in a couple of hours, tops. I can imagine them making their way down one hill and up the next, entering through the massive gates of the great city, and wending their way through.
We hear in that passage from Ezra how important the Temple area was to the people of Israel – and still is. For centuries the Hebrew people worshipped there, and the most important parts of their lives were marked in ritual and worship in that place. Mary and Joseph had journeyed to the temple to dedicate their little boy, just as parents still, today, bring their children to a holy place to be baptized, named or blessed. But something unexpected happened that day.
They were approached by two elders who had a special blessing for the baby. Simeon and Anna were thrilled to meet Jesus, for they knew what he would become as he grew into a man. He was the hope of Israel made flesh – all of their dreams for their people in a baby boy.
But there was another message from these two beautiful elders – a message about the cost of love, which must have cast a shadow on the joy of the new parents. Simeon warned Mary that this child would mean great upheaval in Israel – and change inevitably provokes opposition. This baby Jesus would bring with him “a sword that would pierce [Mary’s] own soul”.
What did he mean? We can’t know for certain, but it seems to me Simeon’s message foreshadows the price that comes with living a life of love outpoured. The compassionate life brings with it much joy, as lives are changed, hearts healed, bodies strengthened, shadows chased away in the lives of those touched by that compassion. But compassion brings with it a heavy price at times. Each time we connect with another human being at a deep level, when their joys become our joys and their sorrows become our sorrows, we know there will be pain attached.
One of the smartest things I’ve heard said about grieving the loss of a loved one is that our grief is the other side of having the gift of love. We would not grieve if we did not love. Can you imagine the grief Mary would have faced on another day in Jerusalem, to see her beautiful boy suffering on a cross? And before that, the grief she felt as she saw him move away from his family and turn his energy outward toward those who followed him, those who challenged him, those who needed him? What does a mother feel when she sees her son almost plowed under by the needs of those around him? When she sees him set his face toward a city and a time that can only bring him to a dreadful ending? Some of you may have seen your own children, or best friends, or partners, walk into dangerous or difficult situations because it was their calling to do so. You can’t hold them back, but a part of you probably wishes you could – because you love them.
For those who have experienced grief, let me ask you this: Could you ever wish that person had never been a part of your life? Could you ever say, “I wish I’d never met them so that I do not have to go through this loss now?” I expect for most of us, the answer is “no”.
Some of us do shy away from love – not just romantic love, but love for our neighbours, love for those who are going through hard times, love for our friends and family. Some of us feel we want to protect ourselves from feeling too much, from hurting too much. Most people nowadays have heard of “compassion fatigue” – when that very special love of reaching out to those who need us becomes too much, and our souls are pierced by the pain or despair we see. Doctors are now diagnosing “vicarious PTSD” in those who counsel and provide health care for those who have been traumatized. Sometimes we care so deeply that the trauma of the other becomes our trauma. While it might not be an experience recommended for one’s mental health, it is an incredibly compassionate experience, in the most literal sense, which mean “suffering with”.
The only antidote I know to the pain of love is more love – the love of God filling us up when we have given love away again and again and again. St John of the Cross wrote these words: “I saw the river over which each soul must pass to reach the kingdom of heaven, and the name of that river was suffering…and I saw the boat that carries souls across that river and its name was love.” John knew what he was speaking about. He joined the Carmelite order in the 1500s when he was only 20 years old. It was a time when the religious orders were in desperate need of reforming, and John was one of the reformers within his own tradition. His critique was so unpopular that he was put in a cell for 9 months by his own order, starving sometimes, beaten at other times, until he managed to escape – yet it was in that time that he wrote some of his most beautiful poetry about his relationship with the Divine. The experience of pain deepened his reliance on God and opened his heart to the revelation of how powerful God’s compassion truly is.
St John of the Cross famously wrote “The Dark Night of the Soul”, which has been a spiritual guide for centuries to those who are in pain or suffering. We do not revel in suffering or seek it out, but we know that when we experience our own pain or that of others, that God is holding us through it – God’s love is the boat that bears us over the river. Writer Christina Feldman says: “There’s not always a solution to suffering, but there is always a response.” God’s response is Love: deep, unending, unconditional, powerful love – that cannot always spare us the sword that pierces our souls, but that can strengthen us and make us more resilient in the face of the pain that comes from loving well. Many of you have seen the clay model of a slightly cupped hand that sits in my study here at the church. It is a daily reminder to me that I and you are held in God’s Love, and that there is a strength available to us beyond our own.
Our God is a Divine Caregiver: rest for the weary, solace for the sorrowful, kindness for those who are worn out from caring for others. We pray that our tender God will wrap loving-kindness around all those carrying pain this day; that each will know the compassion of God and be able to be inspired to be self-compassionate on their journey. Especially at this time of year, we recognize both the pain and the power of Love. May Divine Love bring you healing. Amen.