This summer has seen more than its share of bad news: ISIS, James Foley, Gaza, Michael Brown, Ferguson, Ebola, Robin Williams. The onslaught of atrocities over the past few months has far exceeded what the 24/7 news cycle usually manages to dredge up, and the headlines have been filled with reports of earthquakes and wars and rumors of wars. It’s hard to imagine a greater contrast between these events and the tenor of my personal life during this same season. My husband and I welcomed our first child on July 19, so for me this summer has moved from the anticipation of the last weeks of pregnancy, to the excitement of labor and delivery, and finally to the bliss of holding our newborn baby. In the midst of this newfound joy, I have struggled with how to respond to all the bad news arriving on my doorstep. I generally believe that it’s important to know what’s going on in the world, but this summer I’ve wanted to shut my laptop, keep the television off, and withdraw into the cocoon of new parenthood. Many days I have done just that, believing that the prayer from Compline gets it right when it asks God to “shield the joyous” – to protect our precious joy from the ugliness of the world.
And yet, as the poet Richard Wilbur says, love calls us to the things of this world. While our joy may warrant a break from the world’s pain at times, as Christians we cannot remain untouched by that pain for long, nor should we seek a permanent respite from it. On a daily and weekly basis, our liturgy calls us to remember those people and places described in the news; it asks us to pray for “peace, for goodwill among nations and for the wellbeing of all people” (BCP 1979, 386). Every Sunday, no matter what events have occurred in the world that week, we will be asked to enter into prayer about them. Some weeks that can seem a heavy burden to bear. How do we open ourselves to the suffering of this world when it seems so immense and so far removed from our personal circumstances? How do we avoid the temptations to either despair about the state of the world or to escape into our own private sources of happiness?
As I have mulled over these questions this summer, I have found wisdom in Sam Wells and Abigail Kocher’s reflections on intercessory prayer in their recent book, Shaping the Prayers of the People: The Art of Intercession. They have reminded me that our intercession is grounded in the Trinitarian life of God: “the Holy Spirit carries our prayer to Jesus, and Jesus intercedes to the Father for us…” (Shaping the Prayers, 3). When we intercede for others, we aren’t sending out prayers like radio signals into the dark, hoping that a distant God will hear us and be moved to action; rather, the Triune God is intimately involved in our prayers at every step. We are never alone when we pray, for Jesus prays with us and for us as our crucified Lord. Wells and Kocher connect Jesus’ role as intercessor to his death and resurrection, for “every petition is…a plea for salvation – for safety, for healing, for reconciliation, for communion, for blessing – for all the things Jesus won on the cross” (ibid.). In Christ, God has shouldered the pain of the world in the most personal way possible; in Christ, we see that intercession for the world is not a fruitless exercise but an activity that goes on within the very life of God himself.
On a trip to the Holy Land in 2008, I found myself riveted by an unusual mosaic of Jesus on the Church of All Nations, which stands in the Garden of Gethsemane just outside the walls of Jerusalem. The mosaic depicts Jesus as our intercessor, kneeling at the center of the image with two groups of people flanking him. On Jesus’ right stands a group of men who appear to represent human strength and power – a philosopher, a musician, a soldier, and a king with his crown placed on the ground before him. They all bow their heads or hold a hand over their face before Christ. On Jesus’ left stands a group of women in dark robes; they appear to represent human suffering and weakness. Some hang their heads in sorrow, one woman clutching the lifeless body of her child, while others lift their faces and clasp their hands upwards in prayer. Jesus is kneeling between these two groups, wearing a red robe as a symbol of the blood that he shed for them. He holds his hands out towards them and looks up at God the Father, as if to draw his Father’s attention to their sorrow and suffering. His prayer seems to be, “Father, it was for them that I suffered and died; give to them the benefits of my passion. Heal them. Comfort them. Shield them.”
Knowing that Christ intercedes in this way for our world gives us courage to enter into the pain of others by praying for them. We need not fear that entering into the pain of the world will stamp out the joy that exists in our own lives; rather, our experiences of joy can lead us into deeper empathy with those who are suffering. Out of all the news stories this summer I have found myself most transfixed by interviews with the parents of James Foley, the reporter brutally killed by ISIS just a few weeks ago. Now that I have a son of my own, I understand in some small way (that I didn’t before) the grief that they now endure. The joy I’ve taken in my son does not have to distance me from their pain; rather, it binds me to them more closely and helps me know how to pray for them, even if it is only in sighs too deep for words. As we pray for our world and lift up its pain to God, may we remember that we join Christ in his intercession, and may we trust that by virtue of his cross, joy has come to the whole world.
The image is of the Church of All Nations in Jerusalem and was taken by the author.