We Live in a Safe Universe in Spite of Everything by Ed Burns
All will be well, all will be well, all manner of thing will be well.
– Julian of Norwich
Consider the following scene: A young child wakes up in the middle of the night from a bad dream. The child finds himself surrounded by darkness. He is alone and becomes frightened by nameless threats. In his fear, perhaps bordering on terror at the uncertainty that surrounds him, he cries out for his mother. The mother hears him and comes into his room. She picks him up and cradles him in her arms. She may turn on a lamp and in its warm glow the room seems suddenly more familiar to the child. The mother sits down with the child in her lap and begins to reassure him. Perhaps she sings a lullaby or begins to speak softly to him saying, “Don’t be afraid; everything will be alright.” If all goes well, the child will be reassured, his trust in reality will be recovered, and in this trust he will return to sleep.
Now, in an analogous sense, we hear this message in a passage from the 40th chapter of the Book of Isaiah:
Comfort, comfort my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry out that she has served her term and her penalty is paid. . . . Get up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings . . . do not fear, say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God”. . . . He will feed his flock like a shepherd. He will gather the lambs in his arms and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
In effect, Yahweh is saying to us, “Do not be afraid. Everything will be alright!” During these difficult and disturbing times in which we are living, it is important for us to be reminded of and consoled with this truth of the Good News, this revelation of God, this unshakeable and unchangeable pledge of reassurance on the part of Yahweh to us, his people. You are safe; you are in my care; you need not be afraid because I am with you.
What this passage of Isaiah means, in more contemporary language, is that we are living in the midst of an encompassing and mysterious universe that can be trusted even in the presence of evil and injustice and death. Recall the words from the prayer of exaltation and gratitude uttered by Zechariah at the birth of his son, John the Baptist:
Blessed are you, Lord God of Israel, you have come to your people and set them free . . . free from the hands of our enemies, free to worship you without fear all the days of our life. . . . The dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
We can all appreciate those last words of Zechariah’s prayer, where he refers to those who “dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.” It may not be something we are readily inclined to consider, but the fact of the matter is that darkness and death and sin and injustice and evil are integral parts of our human experience. All we need to do to be convinced of this is to pick up and read the morning papers or turn on and watch the evening news. None of us passes through this life unaffected by or entirely innocent of this darkness and death. Darkness and death exist not only around us, but also within us. In some degree or another, we have all contributed to or have been complicit in creating this “wounded universe.”
In stating this, I do not intend to sound a despairing note regarding our world and our place in it. But I do intend it as a truthful acknowledgment of the reason we begin our liturgy each Sunday morning by confessing our sins against God and our neighbor, and the reason we continue to ask for God’s mercy and forgiveness. An honest assessment of the human scene compels us to acknowledge that when we are born, we are born into a flawed and fractured humanity—a humanity that is capable of the most unspeakable atrocities.
And yet it was this human race into which Jesus was born. And why is this? Because, as John the Evangelist tells us, God so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten Son. Can you believe this? When the Word became flesh and became one of us, Jesus did not remove himself from our wounded humanity. Rather, He became like us in all things, says St. Paul. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul expands on this mystery in the following words:
In your minds, you must be the same as Christ Jesus; His state was divine, yet he did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave; and became as men are; and being as all men are, he was humbler yet, even accepting death, death on a cross . . .
Jesus did not allow himself any special escape clauses from the human condition as we know it. He knew what he had gotten himself into when he identified himself as one of us. He was not naïve. He knew what was in the heart of man. He knew that we were—and are—capable of betrayal and abandonment and treachery and cruelty. But he opted to stay with us anyway, to the point where he was willing to endure the mystery of evil itself. How did Jesus do this? John L. McKenzie, S.J., suggests the following regarding the manner in which Jesus dealt with the evil he encountered and suffered in his earthly life among us:
What Jesus proposed was not an answer to the problem of evil, but a way in which we can live with it. Rarely does one meet a man or a woman who has learned to live at peace in the midst of evil. When one does meet such a person, one knows that one has encountered wisdom, which recognizes God in the World as it is.
The amazing fact of this story—which is the story of our redemption—is that, in spite of the darkness and shadows of our lives, in spite of our frail, flawed, and fickle humanity, Jesus was able to see in each one of us the image and likeness of his Father. He did not look upon us as strangers or servants or enemies, but rather as friends; in fact, as his own brothers and sisters. “I no longer call you servants; I call you friends” (John 15:15).
It is this great truth and revelation of the Gospels that constitutes the root and foundation of our hope; a hope that assures us that in spite of the darkness and death and evil and sin and injustice in and around us, we live in an existence that is fundamentally good and safe. We live in an overarching reality that can be trusted.
The moral of the story of the Incarnation is simply this: It is sufficient for us to be human and to accept our own wounded humanity with the grace of the same compassion with which Jesus accepted us. We do not need to try to be more than what we already are in order to rest safe and secure in the loving embrace of our God.
There are two great ironies at work here. The first is that we do indeed seem to try, all the time, to be more than our finite, limited mortal selves are capable of being. We constantly strive to save ourselves and secure ourselves by grasping after false securities—securities like our impersonal technologies, our militarisms, our finances, our contrived and artificial images of self-sufficiency. Paradoxically, the more energy we put into these efforts, the more we feel our true security and our true humanity slipping away from us.
The second irony at work here is the difficulty we seem to have in accepting something so good in our lives. We tell ourselves that the hope brought into our lives by the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus is too good to be true, too good to be told. “How could we be so lucky?” we are inclined to think. “Apparently,” writes William F. Lynch, S.J., “even the images of the good and of happiness become too much and too overwhelming for humankind, especially where men and women are overcome by negative images of themselves. They do not seem to have the moral energy to lift themselves to any form of brightness.”
Perhaps this is the greatest irony of all; namely, our need to struggle to believe that we live in a universe whose deepest core reality is a mystery of invincible benevolence. But this is precisely the mystery, the reality, the indestructible source of hope to which we are all called.
Do not be afraid, says the mother to her frightened child. Everything will be alright.
Comfort, comfort my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry out that she has served her term and her penalty is paid.
Ed Burns is a licensed marital and family therapist living in Litchfield, Connecticut, where he maintains a private practice treating individuals, couples, and families.
Leave a ReplyWant to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!