In the midst of the present ordeal around the globe, a common response among people of faith has been to seek to identify with the plight of those who are suffering, persecuted, or at risk. One powerful example of this is the adoption of the Arabic letter used to identify the Christian minority in Iraq, many of whom have been brutally slaughtered by the Islamist (not Islamic!) extremists known as ISIS. More and more of my Facebook friends are using this symbol as their own photo, a gesture that expresses their solidarity with those who are under threat of horrific death.
This identification with the vulnerable is a longstanding tradition among Christians. So much of our practice is about mirroring, sharing, imitating, becoming one with those who suffer or who are on the fringe. We say that we meet God in the one who is hungry, in prison, naked, lonely, poor because Jesus himself said it is among those where we will meet him. The desire to be seen as with the crucified Jesus is why wearing a cross became so commonplace. In doing so, ideally, we remind ourselves and announce to those who see us how we wish to be linked to the Christ who conquered injustice and brutality by suffering their throes and then rising from the dead. As St. Paul says,
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6)
According to the Gospel of John, Jesus repeats several times this phrase, ego eimi, I am. I am the way, the truth, the life. I am the good shepherd. I am the gate. I am the bread of life. I am the gate. I am the true vine. And when asked by the soldiers who come to arrest him if he is Jesus, he simply says, “I am.” The words throw them down to the ground as if they had suddenly found themselves in the very presence of God. Which they were. Jesus repeated “I am” statements is how he identifies with, and makes himself equal to, the God who promised to deliver God’s people from their bondage in Egypt at the revelation in the burning bush before Moses. Who shall I say sent me? asks Moses. “I AM WHO AM.” These words form the basis of the most Holy Name of God that is unutterable to the devout. YHWH.
The sufferings of the present time may drive us to prayers that are too deep for words. In prayer, we might place ourselves, our awareness, our full presence, into the Presence who simply and powerfully is. In that presence we hope to find union with God in whose infinite presence contains all the suffering, all the sin, all the agony and violence of the world. No place is outside the God who is Being itself: Gaza; Israel; the U.S. Mexican border; West Africa; the streets of our own nation ripped by gun violence; those households, like Robin Williams’, that struggle with depression and other forms of mental illness; Syria, Iraq, the Sudan.
We cannot be in all these places at once. But in prayer, we can offer our own being, our own selves, into the presence where all suffering meets the Divine Compassion, whom we believe is made manifest in Christ. Jesus’ himself chose to allow his compassion to extend beyond the defining borders of his own religious identity and healed the child of Syro-Phoenician woman who sought him for assistance. That choice for mercy involved a change of mind, a widening of his mercy.
I pray that we will allow ourselves a similar widening, first in our prayers, and then in our acts of generous response and mercy in these times of trial.