Words on the Word

3. Sunday of Lent

Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15: I have seen the miserable state of my people in Egypt.
1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 11-12: They were all baptised into Moses. 
Luke 13:1-9: Do you suppose these Galileans were greater sinners?

When something terrible occurs — when we ourselves, or someone we love, is struck by illness, misfortune or sudden death — we ask: Why? What have I (or what has he or she) done to deserve this? One sometimes hears of people who turn away from faith after not receiving satisfactory answers to such questions. They tend to explain themselves by saying: ‘I can’t believe in a God who permits the suffering of the innocent.’

There is something noble in this kind of revolt. There is also something simplifying and superficial. The attitude presupposes the image of a god who rules this world like a puppeteer: who has all the threads in his hand and governs his animated dolls all-powerfully, one into happiness, another into misfortune, as he pleases. God is almighty. We shall make this claim together shortly, reciting the creed. His omnipotence is not, however, a matter of remote control.

By creating man in his image, that is, divinely free, God set a boundary to his rule. One of faith’s most mysterious aspects is God’s respect for our choices. His respect is an indication of our dignity. One of its consequences is this: we are not protected from the outcome of that which we choose. Folks who are indignant that God does not intervene to prevent harm tend to be the same who’re repulsed by the thought of a god who dictates human action. And so the argument collapses. I can’t have it both ways. I can’t, at the same time, claim the right to do as I please and expect that everything will work together to ensure that my preferences result in joy. After all, I’m not on my own on this earth. My freedom is played out in the context of everyone else’s freedom. And this symphony of freedom is performed in a world that follows its own laws.

Let’s take an example. Consider a volcanic eruption. If it happens on a remote, uninhabited island, it is a wonderful sight. It reminds us of the force that exists in the bowels of the earth, of the elements’ harmony. Contemplating it at a safe distance, we may recall a few lines from the canticle of Daniel, which the Church sings at Lauds on feast days: ‘Praise the Lord, fire and heat, praise the Lord you currents.’ We bow low and exclaim: ‘God you are great’, the way we do when we’re faced with the wonders of nature. If, however, there’s a village at the foot of the volcano, everything changes. What we see turns into something terrible and grotesque. We’re seized with terror on behalf of those who are in danger. Still, it’s no one’s fault that the volcano follows its necessity. That a human society is struck by the flow of lava is an expression, simply, of the fragility intrinsic to the interplay of all things that make up our created reality.

I say this, not to relativise tragedy – No! I say this to recall that not all suffering can be explained.

This is the point Jesus makes in the Gospel. To make it clear, he employs two rather different examples. First he speaks of the Galileans killed by Pilate. Were they uncommonly sinful, deserving what came their way? We’re told this was not the case. This isn’t to stay that we’re dealing with neutral circumstances. Pilate is responsible, but not the victims. The second example concerns the tower that collapsed. Here, too, there may be responsibility to attribute, should the fall be a result of poor workmanship or maintenance. The basic principle remains the same, though. Those who happened to be under the tower when it fell were not more culpable than others. In a certain sense, they simply had bad luck.

Is this, then, all that the Bible has to say for itself: that we human beings are subject to luck?!

Of course not. Scripture simply describes life as it is. It ascertains that every human existence, be it highly virtuous, is exposed to pain. Faith does not preserve us from pain. But it gives pain meaning, in as much as God steps inside it and meets us there. To experience pain is not (as we may be tempted to think) to be Godforsaken. On the contrary. We believe in a God who has revealed himself as our Father. He is a God ‘who loves humankind’, to use an expression dear to the liturgy of the Christian East. When his children suffer, he comes to them to be with them.

We see this when God reveals himself to Moses in the burning bush. He has come, he says, because he has seen the extent of the people’s suffering in Egypt. He wishes to redeem Israel. He will do this, not by magicking evil away, but by taking it upon himself, carrying it with the people and leading them out of it. He himself will be in their midst. As a pledge of his promise, he reveals his name. The name is hard to render in translation, unfortunately. What it conveys is not merely that God is, but that he is here, present in the midst of what is experienced as painful, which his presence illumines and turns into a vehicle of blessing.

In the first testament, this insight is shown as in a mirror. It assumes flesh and blood when God, in the fullness of time, assumes our nature in order, in it, to save and renew us. Nothing human is untouched by the Word. The Word has become like us in all things except sin. Thereby we’re reminded that sin, ‘which clings so closely’ (Heb 12:1), is really alien to us. It separates us from God, and so from our true self. We do well to put it away determinedly. All the other things that make up our lives — including our weakness, our illness, and our fear — can turn out to be bridges by means of which we encounter God. Indeed, the closer we get to him, the more we shall feel drawn to encounter others in their weakness. For people who believe in an incarnate God, humanity is sacramental.

Mgr Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the Greek Catholic archbishop of Kyiv, pointed towards this truth in a powerful summons yesterday. He told us not to avert our gaze from those who suffer. ‘Let us not be afraid’, he said, ‘to allow human suffering into our heart, because precisely this suffering will make us Christians!’ In no way does he glorify pain. Pain is in itself a scandal. However, compassion is a great good. In fact, it is more than a great good. In the light of Christ’s revelation, it is divine. May it find fruitful, efficacious expression in our lives. In the name of Christ!