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Refuse to be Consoled – Nicholas Bartoli

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Br. Nicholas BartoliMatthew 2.13-18
Holy Innocents

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they are no more.”

Rachel refused. She refused to be consoled. Wailing and weeping bitterly, she refused to be consoled.

And, yet, the very next line in Jeremiah has the Lord saying “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears;” “there is hope in your future.” Don’t cry, God says, don’t be sad, it’s OK. My immediate reaction on reading that was, “Are you kidding me?”

I’ve imagined Rachel’s response, and let’s just say I’ll refrain from sharing it in polite company. What I can say, is that a perfectly natural reaction would be for her sadness to blossom into anger, even a righteous rage. How dare God offer any kind of consolation in the depth of her anguish. How dare God say anything at all. Where was God when children were being mercilessly slaughtered? How could God allow that to happen?

How? Why? Good questions we can probably all ask of God at some point in our lives, and if we include not just personal suffering and tragedy, but the general problem of evil in the world, we could be asking God “why,” even now. So, what can we say about our relationship with a supposedly all-powerful and all-good God who nevertheless allows great evil to flourish.

One of my favorite depictions of this problem, the elephant in the room between us and the Holy One, comes from a story by Thomas Aquinas. In the story he tells God that he desires only to love God, to embrace God, and God replies by asking “Which part?” Aquinas responds, “All of you, dear Lord, all of you!”

God scoffs, and says “What you ask is so very far above your strength and courage. You would run from me if I removed my mask.” “But, Beloved,” Thomas replies, “I need to love you—every aspect, every pore.”

And this time God says, “Well, there is a hideous blemish on my body, though it is such an infinitesimal part of my Being—could you kiss that if it were revealed?” “I will try, Lord, I will try,” Thomas answers.

And God says, “That blemish is all the hatred and cruelty in this world.”

So, on the one hand we have our desire to know and love God completely, with all our hearts, and on the other we have whatever role God plays in all the evil of the world. What I find instructive, and ultimately encouraging about Aquinas’ story is that first of all, he doesn’t dodge the question by having God not take responsibility. God doesn’t say, “Oh, well the problem of evil is really just all your fault.” No, the suffering and evil in our world, like it or not, is a part, an infinitesimal part to be sure, but a part nonetheless of who God is.

Secondly, I appreciate that in this story God offers some advice to navigating this relationship, namely that if we are to love God with all our hearts, then we need strength and courage, and perhaps above all, we need to resist the urge to simply run away from the problem.

Saint John of the Cross offers us an understanding of what form that strength and courage might take. After suffering, first-hand, the hatred and cruelty of the world he writes: “With all humility I say, it is God who should ask for forgiveness, not we, Him.” It is God who should ask us for forgiveness.

Looking at it this way, Rachel’s pain and anger would both be part of the healing process, a repair of what might feel to be a broken relationship between her and God. When confronted by the evil and suffering in the world, perhaps some very close to home, do we have the strength and courage to confront God with all our anguish and rage, demanding an apology. And, when the apology comes, which it will, when God begs for our forgiveness, do we have the strength and courage to offer our forgiveness, accepting God for who God is, just as God is.

There’s no shortcut here, no path around the sadness, pain, and anger. The only way to healing and transformation is the Way of Jesus, not around but through. Resurrection comes through the cross, and there is no other way. Denying our pain, or feebly wishing for a different world, for the Holy One to be blemish-free, will only leave us filled with a lingering anxiety and despair. Instead, we need to cry out to God, “How dare you! How dare you! How can you let this happen? How?”

And if we listen, we may hear God respond, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I am so sorry. I wish I could just take all the pain, all the evil away. But I can’t. I’m sorry, I am so very sorry. Please, please forgive me.”

What happens next, is up to us.

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2 Comments

  1. Karen F on January 10, 2019 at 16:09

    so thoughtful Nicholas. appreciated much.

    • Susan McLeod on January 13, 2019 at 08:28

      Whoa! I’ve never grasped forgiveness in quite this way! Me forgiving God? However, your sermon gives me much to ponder! Thank you, Br. Nicholas.

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