Monday, April 8, 2013

Signs of Misery & the Merciful Heart

A Sunday School teacher posed a question to her third-grade class: “What do you have to be to get into heaven?” The hand of a little boy shot up into the air: “You have to be really, really good. You have to make sure you keep all of God’s commandments and not break a single one.” “Well,” the teacher said, “That is important, but it is not enough.” A little girl raised her hand: “You have to be good, but you also have to go to church every week.” “That too is important,” said the teacher, “but it is not enough.” Another girl thought she had the answer: “You have to be good, go to church, and do things to help the poor and needy.” “All of these things are good,” the teacher said, “but they are not enough. What do you have to be to get into heaven?” A boy raised his hand, wildly gesturing as if a light had gone off inside him and he had the answer: “You have to be all those other things. They are really important. But there is one more thing you have to be to get into heaven.” “Yes,” the teacher said in breathless anticipation, “and what is that.” Brimming with confidence the boy said, “You have to be dead!”

Dead is what Frederick Samuel was, at the age of 56. At the burial service his cousin, Les Murray, the renowned Australian poet, read an original composition written for the somber occasion. Patterned after the rhymes of a pub ballad, Murray gave it the title “The Misery Cord.” It was a pun spun off the Latin word ‘misericordia’, which literally means “merciful heart.” For the few here whose Latin may be a little rusty, the word for “wretched” (miserabilis) and the word for ‘pity’ (miseratio) are also closely related. Murray’s poem, largely devoid of mercy, focuses in much more on the wretched misery of death.

In one stanza he writes:

Grief is nothing you can do, but do,
worst work for least reward,
pulling your heart out through your eyes
with tugs of the misery cord.

Any of us who have gone through a painful loss can identify with Murray’s words: grief is the worst work for the least reward. Listen to the final stanza:

Just one man has broken the misery cord
and lived. He said once was enough.
A poem is an afterlife on earth.
Christ grant us the other half.

Murray’s word play and poem present a striking image of a human being praying and searching for mercy in the midst of personal misery. It seems to me that today’s Gospel reading presents Jesus as the antithesis of this image. His body bears the marks of misery while his being has become the epitome of misericordia – the Merciful Heart.

The Church places a great deal of emphasis on Holy Week, and with good reason. The Gospels chronicle well the events from Palm Sunday through the crucifixion and burial of our Lord. I wish we had more detail as to what took place the first week after Easter. We know that women go to the tomb and find it empty. We know they tell the others and that a few investigate. We know that Jesus appears first to Mary in the garden and then to those gathered behind locked doors. We also know that Thomas was not present at this time. We know that Jesus walks with two disciples on the road to Emmaus and is made known to them in the breaking of the bread. All of this took place on Easter Sunday.

We don’t know much about what happened next. Did the disciples celebrate? Did they preach? Did they go to the temple to pray? Did they continue to hide? Did they begin to doubt what had happened? The Gospels are silent about the events of this first week after the resurrection. All we know is that Thomas was not present and could not believe in the Merciful Heart until he himself touched the signs of misery. In his book Resurrection, Rowan Williams observes that in the Gospels there is a “consistent echo of disorientation… concerning the resurrection… [and a] piercing note of shock.” I suspect much of that first week was consumed with wild swings of emotion: joy, disbelief, fear, excitement… any many, many questions. Question #1 for Thomas was it just cannot be possible, can it?

Thomas was a twin. In her poem St. Thomas Didymus (didymus being the Greek word for ‘twin’), Denise Levertov imagines that Thomas finds his spiritual twin in a person Jesus encountered in the 9th chapter of Mark’s gospel. The man, a father, brings his son to Jesus. From birth the son has suffered from seizures and convulsions. In the poem, Thomas imagines how the son’s suffering must have damaged the father’s faith. The father must have asked himself over and again “Why?” Why this? Why my son? Why not somebody else? Why not me? When he approaches Jesus he says, “If you are able, will you please help my son?” “If I am able,” Jesus replies, “You must believe.” “I do believe,” the father responds, “Help my unbelief.” And with that the boy is healed. While the father celebrates and the crowd marvels, Levertov’s Thomas is left with the haunting question of why. Such is the curse of doubters.

The poem continues in Thomas’ voice:

So it was
that after Golgotha
my spirit in secret
lurched in the same convulsed writhings
that tore that child
before he was healed.

And after the empty tomb
when they told me that He lived,
had spoken to Magdalen,
told me
that though He had passed through the door
like a ghost
He had breathed on them
the breath of a living man –
even then
when hope tried with a flutter of wings
to lift me –
still, alone with myself,
my heavy cry was the same: Lord
I believe,
help thou mine unbelief.

I needed
blood to tell me the truth,
the touch
of blood. Even
my sight of the dark crust of it
round the nailholes
didn’t thrust its meaning all the way through
to that manifold knot in me
that willed to possess all knowledge,
refusing to loosen
unless that insistence won
the battle I fought with life

But when my hand
led by His hand’s firm clasp
entered the unhealed wound,
my fingers encountering
rib-bone and pulsing heat,
what I felt was not
scalding pain, shame for my
obstinate need,
but light, light streaming
into me, over me, filling the room
as I had lived till then
in a cold cave, and now
coming forth for the first time,
the knot that bound me unravelling,
I witnessed
all things quicken to color, to form,
my question
not answered but given
its part
in a vast unfolding design lit
by a risen sun.

It is a brilliant, vivid description of transformation. Self-manifested hope fails to lift his heart out of the cry of loneliness. Encountering the Risen Christ does not make Thomas ashamed of who he is – a person knotted up with doubt – but rather fills him with light and with color.

Literary critics will tell you that the climax of John’s Gospel – everything it has been building on and working toward – comes when Thomas says to Jesus, “My Lord and my God.” Keep in mind that the Gospel was written perhaps fifty years or more after the resurrection. Few remained who had known Jesus first hand. So Jesus’ response to Thomas’ confession would have been especially powerful and poignant to those early readers: “Do you believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Blessed are we who neither have seen nor have touched the misery marks on the Merciful Heart, and yet still have found our lives filled with light and color through faith in the Risen Lord.

The Marxist Leon Trotsky spent the last years of his life living in exile as punishment for his opposition of Joseph Stalin, who eventually had Trotsky assassinated in 1940. Prior to that, Trotsky made the following entry in his dairy:

Life is not an easy matter... You cannot live through it without falling into frustration and cynicism unless you have before you a great idea which raises you above personal misery, above weakness, above all kinds of perfidy and baseness.

When Thomas touches the signs of Jesus’ misery he finds for himself the great idea that gives form to the remainder of his life: Alleluia. Christ is risen!  It is the great idea that has changed the world.  It is the great idea that has been proclaimed to the farthest reaches of the earth.  It is the great idea that has been passed down through the generations.  It is the great idea that brings us together this morning.  It is the great idea that fills our lives with light and color, transforming misery through the presence of the Merciful Heart.