“…Ransom had been perceiving that the triple distinction of truth from myth and of both from fact was purely terrestrial – was part and parcel of that unhappy division between soul and body which resulted from the Fall. Even on earth the sacraments existed as a permanent reminder that the division was neither wholesome nor final. The Incarnation had been the beginning of its disappearance.” – C. S. Lewis, Perelandra, chapter 11
What is a sacrament? It is a meeting of supernatural truth and physical fact – a symbol or a sign that also accomplishes that which it symbolizes, a moment of living myth.
In baptism we symbolize our union with Christ in His death and resurrection by plunging into the water and rising out of it again – but it is more than just a picture, as the Scripture says: “Baptism, which corresponds to this [Noah’s ark], now saves you” (I Pt 3:21).
We eat the bread and drink the wine, and remember Jesus’s body broken and His blood shed on the cross – but it is more than a memorial, as Jesus told us: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink His blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life.” (Jn 6:53-54).
Into the physical water comes the saving grace of God; into the tangible wafer and wine comes the true Presence of the Bread of Life.
For in taking on humanity – one Person holding in Himself both natures, being at one time both supernatural and natural, both human and Divine – Jesus began the knitting together of those things which sin had torn apart. No longer is the material world completely separate and distinct from the spiritual; now they begin to work together as one, water and spirit in our baptism, bread and body in the mystery of the Eucharist, even as Jesus Himself is one.
“We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent. […] Being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.
“We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity. […]
“So many of us have become afraid and angry. We’ve become so fearful and vengeful that we’ve thrown away children, discarded the disabled, and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and the weak – not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation, but because we think it makes us seem tough, less broken. […] But simply punishing the broken – walking away from them or hiding them from sight – only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.”
– Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy, emphasis added
The last line from the quote above lingers in my mind, settling down slowly through my thoughts like gentle rain seeping deeper into the clay soil of our desert yard (and my thoughts are holding onto it like that clay retains the water that falls upon it).
I am reminded of C. S. Lewis’s attempt (in Mere Christianity) at explaining how one man’s sin could affect the whole human race, and how one man’s righteousness could restore it, in which he compared humanity to a tree, each individual inextricably bound to the others through time and space, biologically and spiritually, so that sickness could spread from one to all the rest, and likewise healing.
I am reminded of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, where he writes that if he suffers, it is for the purpose of bringing them comfort and salvation, and that if he is comforted, that is also for their comfort and salvation. He was willing to be broken himself to help restore them to wholeness, and to share his healing with them. To be honest, I don’t think it would have been a satisfactory and complete healing for him if he knew that the church he loved was still broken and suffering, either through sin or persecution.
But I also know, from observation and experience, that vulnerability is hard, that grace is hard, that walking with another person on the path from brokenness to healing is incredibly hard. People don’t usually respond the way you might want or expect, and their journey toward wholeness tends to be circuitous and rocky. Rehabilitation isn’t a process of making over broken people into our image (or some ideal image), but rather a process of helping those people find freedom from the bonds of trauma, regret, addiction, illness, and so on. I don’t think it is possible without some amount of pain.
And as for how this might look, practically, in my life? I have no idea. There are many possibilities, obviously, since all of us are so broken, but I don’t know where to go after the basic beginnings of extending love and grace to my family and immediate community. I do know, at least, that I intend to keep my eyes and ears open to the stories and hurts of other people, so that when the opportunity to show love and mercy does arise I am prepared.
This post, originally published in November 2015, is relevant again this month as our new president does everything in his power to block both refugees and legal immigrants from targeted countries from entering the United States. A year ago, I thought it reasonable to hope that our country would respond with greatness and nobility to the refugee crisis; it seems far less likely now. To see the names and faces of some of the innocent people our country condemned to death in 1939, visit https://twitter.com/stl_manifest, a Twitter feed that went through the entire ship’s manifest and shared the people who were killed by the Nazis, in commemoration of Holocaust Remembrance Day on the 27th – it makes the whole tragedy feel more real and less distant. And then remember that the families, the children, fleeing from Syria and Somalia and Iraq are just as real, just as human, as these people from the past whose fate we so vocally lament.
I remember learning, as a child, about the ship St. Louis that sailed from Germany in 1939, carrying over 900 Jewish refugees to a Cuba that had just closed its doors. Turned away from her destination, the St. Louis asked President Roosevelt to give them safe harbor (a choice he could feasibly have made using the power of the executive order), but he never even replied. In the end, the passengers were scattered throughout Britain and Western Europe; half of those who returned to the continent were killed in the war. Hitler received the clear message that the rest of Western civilization was not particularly concerned about the fate of the Jewish people.
Why was the United States so cavalier about the fate of these individuals, so cold to their plight? The USHMM has a good summary:
Despite the ongoing persecution of Jews in Germany, the State Department’s attitude was influenced by the economic hardships of the Depression, which intensified grassroots antisemitism, isolationism, and xenophobia. The number of entry visas was further limited by the Department’s inflexible application of a restrictive Immigration Law passed by the US Congress in 1924. Beginning in 1940, the United States further limited immigration by ordering American consuls abroad to delay visa approvals on national security grounds.
In short, substituting anti-Islamic sentiment for antisemitism, the United States was facing exactly the same attitudes in 1939 that she is today in 2015. Her citizens were afraid – afraid for their own economic security, afraid to be drawn into global problems, afraid of war, and afraid of people whose appearance, culture, and beliefs were different than their own. We have our own problems; let those people take care of themselves and leave us in peace.
In C.S. Lewis’s book That Hideous Strength, he allows the characters to muse for a while on the particular genius or defining characteristic of several different nations – in essence, the way in which those nations, despite the grime and decay of sin, most especially reflect some aspect of the coming kingdom of Christ.
He doesn’t make two blades of grass the same: how much less two saints, two nations, two angels. The whole work of healing Tellus [Earth] depends on nursing that little spark, on incarnating that ghost, which is still alive in every real people, and different in each. When Logres really dominates Britain, when the goddess Reason, the divine clearness, is really enthroned in France, when the order of Heaven is really followed in China – why, then it will be spring.
Since the first time I read that passage as a teenager I’ve wondered what could define the United States, my own country. It’s only now, as I consider the refugee crisis, that I think I see what is best, most characteristic, most beautiful about us – and what consequently is most violently attacked.
The United States, in theory, as a concept or an ideal, is a nation that welcomes the poor, the oppressed, the pioneer, the explorer, the entrepreneur, the “huddled masses yearning to be free,” and offers to each of them the opportunity to labor, live, learn, and love to the best of their ability. We’re not, historically, a country that supports and provides for each other well, but we are a country that provides opportunity well. In every age people have come here seeking that opportunity, and it has been here waiting for them. And as representatives from all nations and cultures have come here seeking that opportunity, we have taken them in and, though we have most definitely not always embraced the diversity they bring, we have given them the freedom to be and express who they are. With time, they become American, but they don’t need to lose their heritage to do so.
It is the same with God’s kingdom. All nations will come to it, seeking life, seeking love, seeking to learn and labor for a better future, and all those peoples will be assimilated into one people, His people, but they won’t have to lose their traditions and history to do so. We will be proudly and beautifully ourselves, carrying the full rich textured fabric of our past and our culture, as we walk into His kingdom, and all nations will be represented there in the fullness of their glory as well.
Is it any wonder, if this is the divine spark within our nation, that it should be so constantly besieged? It is always our fear that impedes us – our fear of the unknown future and our forgetfulness of the past.
Throughout our history there has been this countercurrent running, this voice that whispers fear in our ears. It tells us that letting in these new people will compromise our own position – steal our jobs, endanger our families, threaten our comfortable way of life. Having received opportunity for ourselves, our temptation is to withhold it from others. Having been born to privilege, safety, and relative wealth, we fear that offering the opportunity for others to work for those things will entail losing them ourselves. Having lived in freedom, we condemn others to oppression even as they beg at our feet for us to open our doors, or risk their lives to enter illegally.
I pray that this time, in this hour of need, our borders would open to those seeking shelter, desiring a new life, wanting simply the opportunity to pursue happiness and love that we have declared an inalienable human right; that we would overcome our fears of different cultures and religions and see the humanity behind them; that we would risk our comfort and security ever so slightly to save families and children from torture and death. I pray that we would not repeat our failure of the 1930s, ISIS terrorism standing in for Hitler’s Holocaust.