All in it together

At that time, standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

JOHN 19:25-27; 21:24-25

There was a small cruise ship sailing in the Caribbean. A hurricane pushed it way off course. The ship blew up on a reef next to an island. Everyone got off alive. But there was no electricity to work the radio. There was no way to get a message to the outside world that their boat had not sunk in the hurricane. No one was looking for them in that location because it was so far away from where they should have been.

There were about fifty people. They had some food and water. For now. A few of the people understood what a predicament they were in. They needed to get rescued soon or they would all die of dehydration.

There were trees on the island. The people had some tools to cut the trees down and make a raft. But it would take a huge amount of work and effort to do it. They couldn’t get off the island unless everyone worked together.

Most of the people did not understand how unlikely it was that they would be found and rescued. Only four people did understand that they needed to get off the island as fast as possible Before their supplies ran out. No one would listen. Four people could not save everyone alone. The trees and other materials were too heavy. They could not even make a raft that was just big enough for the four of them let alone for the whole group.

In the “group of four” There was a football coach. This was a person who took no nonsense. He started to complain to the other three about the lazy and complacent majority. “You see!” he said. “It’s all because no one knows how to do an honest day’s work anymore… They are going to die here. Good! It is God’s righteous judgment that they perish.”

The football coach might have had a point, but that did not help anyone get off the island. His angry words did not convince anyone of anything. And if God’s “righteous judgment” doomed the larger group from getting off the island, it would simultaneously prevent him from getting off the island. No one could make it out alive Unless everyone worked together to get everyone out alive.

Another person in the group of four was a professor;  a rather bookish type who was used to everything being rational and logical. He started to ask, “Why did this happen to us? Why did God allow us to be stranded on this island? How is God good if He allows this?”

Those might be valid questions. Our society gives us a set of expectations About what God should be. And life hurts. So the questions are understandable. But they are very impractical questions. They are not questions that help anyone get off an island. Plus, you could just as easily ask the question, “Why should God intervene for you?” Laws of nature are laws of nature. Hurricanes happen. Death happens. It is just science. More importantly, proclaiming the unrighteousness of God or even proclaiming that God probably does not exist (and how could you possibly verify that, Mr. Scientist?) does not help anyone to do anything useful or selfless or virtuous. Objecting to the irrationality of God Only serves to make you feel smarter like you have figured it out. But it does not help anyone.

The third person in the “group of four” felt sorry for the large group. This was a very social person who got along with people. He didn’t like making the group angry. He asked, “isn’t there any way we can help everyone without making any demands of the lazy ones?” He wanted to shelter the majority of the group from the consequences of their actions.

“You see,” he explained, “They may seem lazy, But they just want to enjoy the sunshine. Plus they are not used to hard labour. These are fairly well-off people, How do you think they could afford to be on a cruise? Hard work would be a shock to their system. These people are sheltered too. They have never had to deal with the harsher realities of life. It’s not fair for them to have to be confronted with a life-and-death situation. Can’t we save them from dying on the island, while also saving them from the discomfort of having to do the work needed to get off the island?”

But facts are stubborn things. Compassion is wonderful. The football coach needed to learn compassion. If the atheist had compassion he would probably stop speculating about the existence of God, and begin to do something useful for the people on whom he had compassion. But there is a difference between empathy and feeling sorry for someone. Feeling sorry for someone makes me feel virtuous, but it may not help them become virtuous. And it still did not change the fact that they were are all going to die together unless everyone worked together.

The group of four concluded that it was necessary for the complacent people to get  hungry and thirsty before they would be motivated to listen. So the four of them saved their breath and waited.

The fourth person decided to prepare everything he could to for the work of making the raft. He did this in anticipation, and in the hope that everyone would eventually decide to cooperate. He made plans. He collected whatever they would use to cut the trees. He prepared storage containers so they could bring supplies on the raft.

Focussing on what he could do now, and having the courage to hope stubbornly that everyone would do the right thing eventually, gave him the moral authority to lead and direct the work of the whole group when they decided to cooperate.

A few days passed. Someone in the larger group got seriously dehydrated and looked like she would die. That got everyone’s attention. Everyone banded together and gave the person an extra portion of water. They carried her in under the shade of a tree to revive. Now the people all started to cooperate. They got to work with the tools and the plans that had been prepared. They made their raft. They got off the island. They almost died at sea. Because no one ever promised that this would work. But it was the only thing that could work. Eventually they were rescued; half dead, but still alive.

The majority that had been lazy, sheltered and privileged had now matured. Because of the crisis, they came out skinnioer but tougher; shaken but also more responsible. Strangers became brothers.

In today’s gospel reading Mary and the Apostle John, were standing at the cross watching their beloved master and teacher die in horrible agony. Disfigured. Discredited. Discarded. The precious one is despised. The royal priest, whose prayers and whose power have protected the city of Jerusalem, has now been marched out of his city like a criminal and a slave. But John and Mary stand there.

St. Ambrose of Milan tells us that the reason Mary was staring at her dying son was not because she was horrified at the brutality of his death. We might have stood and stared, transfixed by the horror. But that was not why Mary was standing there. She was marveling at the miracle of salvation that was unfolding before her eyes. She understood that the disciples would have to reckon with their cowardice. She knew that each person in the world would one day have to look at the horrible truth of how ugly and horrific their own sin is. Jesus on the cross constitutes a just accusation against all of us. And yet, she does not stare in pity or fear. She stands in wonder at the goodness of God.

While Mary prays for us, she also knows that when we see that horror of sin, and our conscience is pricked, that will be for our salvation. As a mother, she knows that the child must be allowed to be confronted with the consequences of their actions in order to mature. Trying to save someone from the gospel truth about the evil of their sin, about how their sin is leading towards death, is to try to save them from Jesus.

Mary was not angry with the ones who killed Jesus And she was not angry with God the Father who sent Jesus. Mary knew, as she stood at the foot of the cross, that while we may never understand why evil exists, the cross reveals to us that the real tragedy of evil is that it is inside us. And yet God has come to destroy evil and death.

I want to read a part of a poem By St. Ephrem the Syrian. And it is about Jonah when he preached repentance to Nineveh. For anyone who doesn’t know this is a story from the Bible when God sends a messenger, a prophet, to an evil city. The prophet tells the people of the city that unless they change their ways, God will destroy them all. But the message works. They all focus. They all work together. And they all change.

And this poem takes some artistic license in imagining what it is like when a whole group of people work together for their common salvation. St. Ephrem is purposely using words that allude to the church, as Jesus describes it.

The young men laid restraint upon their eyes,
That they might not gaze on women;
Women laid aside their ornaments,
That those who looked on them might not stumble.
For they all were persuaded of this.
That the ruin was a common one;
If they became a stumbling-block to others,
They themselves would not escape.
The beautiful would not disturb
The penitence of the men of the city;
For they knew that on their behalf
The repentant were mourning.
They thus both healed and were healed,
The one by the other, through repentance.
No one caused his neighbour to sin,
For every man was persecuting unrighteousness;
Every one drew on his companion
To prayer and supplication.
The whole city became one body,
Every one was watching every one,
Lest one should sin against his kinsman.
Each one instructed his neighbour.
That he might be clear from his fellow-member.
No man there offered up petitions,
That he might alone be saved;
They were alike as fellow-members,
For each prayed the one for the other.
All the city had been summoned
To destruction, as though it were one body.
Nor were the sober among them able
To live apart from sinners;
For as members they were bound together,
The good and the evil equally.
Their righteous men were offering prayers
For sinners, that they might be saved;
And sinners again were intreating
For the righteous, that they might be heard.
The just among them prayed
For the unrighteous, that they might be saved;
And the unjust, on the other hand, made supplication
That the prayer of the just might be accepted.

Bonus material from St. Ambrose, Epistle LXIII (63)

108. Mothers, wean your children, love them, but pray for them that they may long live above this earth, not on the earth but above it, for there is nothing long-lived on this earth, and that which lasts long is but short and very frail. Warn them rather to take up the Cross of the Lord than to love this life.

109. Mary, the mother of the Lord stood by her Son’s Cross; no one has taught me this but the holy Evangelist St. John. Others have related how the earth was shaken at the Lord’s passion, the sky was covered with darkness, the sun withdrew itself; that the thief was after a faithful confession received into paradise. John tells us what the others have not told, how the Lord fixed on the Cross called to His mother, esteeming it of more worth that, victorious over His sufferings, He rendered her the offices of piety, than that he gave her a heavenly kingdom. For if it be according to religion to grant pardon to the thief, it is a mark of much greater piety that a mother is honoured with such affection by her Son. “Behold,” He says, “thy Son”. … “Behold thy mother.” Christ testified from the Cross, and divided the offices of piety between the mother and the disciple. The Lord made not only a public but also a private testament, and John signed this testament of His, a witness worthy of so great a Testator. A good testament not of money but of eternal life, which was written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, Who says: “My tongue is the pen of a quickly writing scribe.”

110. Nor was Mary below what was becoming the mother of Christ. When the apostles fled, she stood at the Cross, and with pious eyes beheld her Son’s wounds, for she did not look for the death of her Offspring, but the salvation of the world. Or perchance, because that “royal hall” [i.e. Mary is a throne room of the King Jesus] knew that the redemption of the world would be through the death of her Son, she thought that by her death also she might add something to the public weal. But Jesus did not need a helper for the redemption of all, Who saved all without a helper. Wherefore also He says: “I am become like a man without help, free among the dead.” He received indeed the affection of His mother, but sought not another’s help.

Imitate her, holy mothers, who in her only dearly beloved Son set forth so great an example of maternal virtue; for neither have you sweeter children, nor did the Virgin seek the consolation of being able to bear another son.

From Methodius, “Concerning Free Will.”

Orthodoxus. The old man of Ithaca, according to the legend of the Greeks, when he wished to hear the song of the Sirens, on account of the charm of their voluptuous voice, sailed to Sicily in bonds, and stopped up the ears of his companions; not that he grudged them the hearing, or desired to load himself with bonds, but because the consequence of those singers’ music to those who heard it was death. For such, in the opinion of the Greeks, are the charms of the Sirens. Now I am not within hearing of any such song as this; nor have I any desire to hear the Sirens who chant men’s dirges, and whose silence is more profitable to men than their voice; but I pray to enjoy the pleasure of a divine voice, which, though it be often beard, I long to hear again; not that I am overcome with the charm of a voluptuous voice, but I am being taught divine mysteries, and expect as the result, not death but eternal salvation. For the singers are not the deadly Sirens of the Greeks, but a divine choir of prophets, with whom there is no need to stop the ears of one’s companions, nor to load one’s-self with bonds, in fear of the penalty of hearing. For, in the one case, the hearer, with the entrance of the voice, ceases to live; in the other, the more he hears, the better life will he enjoy, being led onwards by a divine Spirit. Let everyone come, then, and hear the divine song without any fear. There are not with us the Sirens from the shore of Sicily, nor the bonds of Ulysses, nor the wax poured melting into men’s ears; but a loosening of all bonds, and liberty to listen to everyone that approaches. For it is worthy of us to hear such a song as this; and to hear such singers as these, seems to me to be a thing to be prayed for. But if one wishes to hear the choir of the apostles as well, he will find the same harmony of song. For the others sang beforehand the divine plan in a mystical manner; but these sing an interpretation of what has been mystically announced by the former. Oh, concordant harmony, composed by the Divine Spirit! Oh, the comeliness of those who sing of the mysteries of God? Oh. that I also may join in these songs in my prayer. Let us then also sing the like song, and raise the hymn to the Holy Father, glorifying in the Spirit Jesus, who is in His bosom.

Shun not, man, a spiritual hymn, nor be ill-disposed to listen to it. Death belongs not to it; a story of salvation is our song. Already I seem to taste better enjoyments, as I discourse on such subjects as these; and especially when there is before me such a flowering meadow, that is to say, our assembly of those who unite in singing and hearing the divine mysteries.

From Methodius “Fragments from the Homily on the Cross and Passion of Christ

” Some think that God also, whom they measure with the measure of their own feelings, judges the same thing that wicked and foolish men judge to be subjects of praise and blame, and that He uses the opinions of men as His rule and measure, not taking into account the fact that, by reason of the ignorance that is in them, every creature falls short of the beauty of God. For He draws all things to life by His Word, from their universal substance and nature. For whether He would have good, He Himself is the Very Good, and remains in Himself; or, whether the beautiful is pleasing to Him, since He Himself is the Only Beautiful, He beholds Himself, holding in no estimation the things which move the admiration of men. That, verily, is to be accounted as in reality the most beautiful and praiseworthy, which God Himself esteems to be beautiful, even though it be contemned and despised by all else — not that which men fancy to be beautiful.

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