Your Sorrow Is My Sorrow: Hope and Strength in Times of Sufferingby Joyce Rupp
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With the exquisite prose and poetry that has always graced her writing, Joyce Rupp mines the multiple meanings of important images in the Bible, in order to get us through our own rough moments. Included are: the prophecy of Simeon, the flight into Egypt, Jesus lost in the temple, Mary seeing Jesus carrying the cross, Mary at the foot of the cross, Mary receiving Jesus' dead body, and Jesus being laid in the tomb.
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Your Sorrow Is My Sorrow
Hope and Strength in Times of Suffering
By Joyce Rupp, Mary Southard
The Crossroad Publishing CompanyCopyright © 1999 Joyce Rupp
All rights reserved.
The First Sorrow: The Prophecy of Simeon
THE FORETELLING OF SORROW
"This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed — and a sword will pierce your own soul too." (Luke 2:34)
I thought the worst was behind me — the struggles with Joseph before our marriage, the strenuous, hurried journey to help my cousin Elizabeth when I wasn't feeling very well myself, and that terrifying day when my contractions began while Joseph and I were traveling. How I had hoped that life would grow calm and serene when I beheld that beautiful child of ours at his birth. It did seem to be that way for a while.
I felt contented with life the day that Joseph and I walked into the temple with our young son. I never expected it to be anything but happy as we went to present Jesus according to customary Jewish law. As we completed the ritual, one of the elders named Simeon came to us with a look of recognition on his face. Neither of us had met him before, so I hesitated a moment when he asked to hold our small son. But there was an aura of wisdom and depth about his presence, so I placed Jesus in his frail arms.
I saw a tear fall out of the crinkled corner of the old man's eye as he held our son. He lifted Jesus as high as his aging arms could stretch and proclaimed that Jesus would be a radiant guide for others. He said Jesus was going to make a great difference for many people. I looked at Joseph at the same time as he looked at me. We were both smiling at what Simeon had just said.
I didn't understand Simeon's tear until he spoke again. This time he looked directly at me. Again I saw the depth beyond his eyes. His voice trembled and his words were engulfed with sadness as he said to me, "This child will face great opposition. He will not be accepted by those who have power to destroy him. This child will pay a heavy price for his goodness. And you, Mary, your hurt will be so profound, you will feel as though your heart was sliced through with a sharp sword."
For a while Simeon's words just hung there in the temple air. I was stunned, not believing what I had heard. Then slowly the devastating news came home to me: my son was going to be harmed. "Oh, no," I thought, "this cannot be!" All my joy drained out as fear and trepidation arose. I shook my head, trying to clear the faint feeling. My voice sounded hollow as I told Joseph I needed to sit down. "Terrible, terrible pain ahead for my child. Deep, deep heartache for myself." Over and over, those same chilling words whirled around in my head. What did it mean? Certainly future danger for my child, severe harm of some kind.
Joseph was alarmed, too. We were trying to compose ourselves when Anna, one of the temple widows, came by. She saw us sitting there, stunned and dismayed. She sat down beside me, gently took my hand in one of hers, and with the other she wiped the perspiration from my brow. Her face was that of one who had grown very close to God. There was such kindness and understanding in it. For months afterward I remembered the look on her face. As I began to feel at ease again, Anna took Jesus and rocked him gently. When she finally spoke, her words were filled with praise for the Holy One and gratitude for the birth of Jesus. She, too, promised that Jesus would make a great difference in people's lives.
Looking back now, I wish I had asked Simeon some questions and spent more time with Anna. But I was simply too dazed. Simeon had left us quickly after he spoke those terrifying words. Perhaps he, too, could not bear to think of what lay ahead for us. When we walked out of the temple, Joseph cradled Jesus protectively against his shoulder and held me close by his side. We left with such different feelings than those we had come with that day.
It took me quite a while to put Simeon's prophecy in perspective. I remember the day I felt peace slip fully inside of me again. I was washing dishes while Simeon's words churned inside my mind for the thousandth time. Suddenly I had this clear memory of the angel visiting me before Joseph and I were married. I remembered my struggle and confusion even though that message contained good news about the specialness of the child in my womb. I had so many questions at that time, and I had asked them all. The messenger kept telling me not to fear the future, assuring me that God would provide. I finally let go of my fears and doubts and said, "Yes, I will be honored to be an instrument of God. Let it be done."
It seemed to me that I had to find this hope again as I faced Simeon's prophecy. I had to go forward and trust the Holy One with my life no matter what sufferings might lie ahead. I had found the courage and faith to go through the difficult situations before Jesus' birth. Surely I would find this courage and faith again no matter what the future held. And so, once more I placed my confidence in the Holy One's promise to be an abiding source of strength for me.
Our "Simeons" come upon us as unexpectedly as Mary's did. They come with equally harsh news and the inherent understanding that we will suffer in some way because of what has been announced to us. We don't want the news any more than Mary did. We don't deserve it any more than Mary did. But our Simeons appear anyway and with them come struggle and suffering.
Our Simeon prophecies usually enter our lives abruptly and without much warning. These announcements startle, shock, and confound us. They take us by surprise, wrench us out of our comfort zones, and blast us with their reality. The messages they carry bear promises of pain, grief, turmoil.
Many of us have experienced a "Simeon announcement" of some type. In the midst of a life that is going reasonably well comes the physician's prognosis of a serious illness or future surgery, the letter telling of a job ending, the family member sharing a shameful family secret hidden for years, the phone call speaking of death, the spouse declaring separation, the administrator announcing the closing of an institution or a major merger, the child insisting on a lifestyle in total contradiction to a parent's, a bank statement speaking for itself about a lack of finances.
I think of the parents who were told that their son had Down's Syndrome. They were shocked and found it very hard to believe, as no warning had been given before their child was born. Many fearful concerns instantly flashed through their minds, but, like Mary, they did not know how great their pain would be, only that the future would be difficult. Reflecting on their son's birth later in life, the mother said, "Little did I know at that time the pain and suffering I would go through over the years. It was hard enough to deal with his health problems, but it was even harder coping with his mental and emotional disabilities." I heard Mary's experience in this mother's story as she commented: "Even though I have gone through much sorrow and pain with Jerry, he has also been a source of great joy. I really believe he is a gift from God to us."
Sometimes our Simeons come from an internal rather than an external source. Our intuition and our night dreams are voices that can give us messages predicting future suffering. A woman named Debra had a dream that she thought was telling her about death. In her dream she saw her mom and grandma, who were still alive, with her dad, grandpa, and other relatives who had died years before. All these people were on the other side of the river waving to her. She had a strong sense that the dream meant that her mother and grandmother were going to die soon. She made a decision to spend more time with these two women and was thankful that she did because during that year they both died within three months of each other.
Another woman told me how she was teaching school when she was startled with the sudden thought, "I am going to hear that my father has died." She had no reason to think it and mentally gave herself a shake and admonished herself to pay attention to what she was teaching. That evening she had a phone call telling her that her father had been admitted to the hospital with pneumonia but that he would probably be released in a day or two. The following day he took a sudden turn for the worse. She hurried to reach the hospital, but he died before she arrived. Her inner prophecy had become a reality.
Our "Simeons" are a part of life. We cannot avoid them, try as we might. Likewise, we cannot plan for the kind of suffering and hurt that may await us in the future because of unwanted pronouncements. I have so often wished that I had been ready for surprising news that jolted me, but there was simply no way I could have foreseen what was coming. There have been numerous Simeons in my life, some of them bearing news of minor disasters and others large enough to mark my future with long stretches of pain.
I remember all too well the evening that I arrived at a hotel in Honolulu and the desk clerk handed me the small, square piece of white paper with the message: "Call home. Emergency." I doubt that he knew what a Simeon he was for me, but I knew the message meant that someone I treasured was in serious trouble. I didn't know until a phone call later that it was my father who had died of a heart attack. When I heard the heartbreaking news, I had no idea of how deep my sadness would be, but the overwhelming sorrow I immediately felt told me the future would hold much more of the same.
Responding to Our Simeons
The difficult and challenging messages, announcements, or revelations that we unexpectedly receive bring with them an immediate sense of concern and often alarm: Is this really true? What will happen now? How much hurt will there be? Can I get through this? What will I do? How can I handle this? What will become of me or of us? How long will this go on? How did this situation get to be this way?
When our Simeons bring us "bad news" we quickly become aware of how fleeting our peace and happiness is, how fragile our security, and how vulnerable our life can be. It is not unusual to initially experience fear, anger, disbelief, rage, intense sadness, emptiness, etc. All these responses are normal reactions to unwanted news. There is almost always a moment in our "bad news" time when we are stunned as Mary was. There is almost always a space in our life after startling, unwelcome news when we wonder whether our life will ever have peace and happiness again. We may want to lash out at the news and fight it. Eventually, we have to face the unwanted news, decide what our attitude toward it is going to be, and then deal with the situation as best we can. All of this takes time, love, and a tremendous amount of spiritual fortitude.
In the film Good Will Hunting, the wise therapist says to Bill, the young man who is hurting: "Bad things draw our attention to the good things we've overlooked." Mary didn't need Simeon's prophecy to convince her or remind her of what she had in the beauty and joy of her son. Mary already appreciated who and what she had in her life. But Simeon's words undoubtedly honed and sharpened her awareness of her son's presence and the goodness she found in many facets of her life.
When a life situation or event springs upon us and predicts future turmoil, what we value in life suddenly becomes sweeter, dearer, and more precious to us. For example, when faced with a prognosis of rheumatoid arthritis, mobility and pain-free days suddenly seem like a tremendous gift. When depression blankets our view of life with a deep void, the free and easy joy we assumed each day becomes something that we long for and relish.
Our Simeon messages are invitations to live each day gratefully and to enter each day fully. They can gift us with deeper awareness of how much we have taken for granted: our good health, our job, our home, our loved ones. When bad news jars our peace and crowds out our joy, it is a wakeup call: Attend! Notice! Look! Appreciate! Affirm! Beyond the shock of the bad news and its consequences comes the invitation to be grateful for what we simply assumed was ours for the keeping.
If, like Mary, we live in the fullness of each day, mindfully aware and grateful for that which brings us meaning, happiness, contentment, and security, we will not be spared the devastating emotions that spring up at a time of unwanted news, but we will also not be burdened with guilt or regrets over not having recognized and appreciated what is being taken from us.
The Gift of Anna
The Gospel of Luke describes Anna as being "of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day" (Luke 2:36–37). Think of it: Anna the aged woman and Mary the very young woman meeting at such a crucial time. How much Mary must have needed her. Anna's early widowhood had given her a fuller understanding of life. She knew what suffering was. Her many years in the temple deepened her relationship with God. She knew what surrender and fidelity meant. Anna came as a sign of hope and a source of strength for Mary. She came as a comfort to this young mother who had just learned that she would have much sorrow in the future.
I have always been struck by the scriptural detail which tells us that Anna "came by just at that moment." Our "Annas" come when we need them. They come "just at the right time" in the form of a phone call, a letter, a person at the door, a compassionate nurse at a bedside. They may not say a lot to us, may not even realize how profoundly they are a messenger of hope to us. But we know ... and we gain courage from their presence. They bring us a touch of comfort and hope as we embark upon a time of suffering. Our "Annas" are messengers from God. They are compassion-filled people who are not afraid to be with someone who is hurting. They are faith-filled people who bring us encouragement as much by their presence as through their words. They are hope-filled people who bless us by their constant certainty of our ability to overcome adversity.
My mother met her "Anna" several months after my father died. Like Anna, she came by "just at that moment" and blessed my mother's life in ways my mother never would have imagined. My mother's "Anna" came in the form of a neighbor named Wilda, who lived next door in the condominium where my mother moved after my father's death. Like Anna, Wilda had known hard times. She was prayerful, compassionate, and she understood my mother's sorrowful heart. Wilda became my mother's best friend, and she helped to bring her back to life.
Sometimes our "Annas" have no idea that they are helping us with the pain that follows a Simeon announcement. I recall the story of a grandmother named Jolene who told how stunned and worried she was when her unmarried Caucasian daughter phoned to say that she was pregnant with the child of an African American with whom she was no longer in relationship. Jolene's daughter had no money and needed a place to live. Jolene said her feelings went beyond immediate financial concerns to what it would be like to have a biracial grandchild. She was embarrassed for herself and worried for the child. She struggled with these feelings until the day when she was working at a pediatric clinic. On that day she was examining a two-month-old biracial child of a young couple. Jolene explained how her heart changed in that moment: "As their beautiful dark-skinned, brown-eyed boy's gaze locked on mine, I heard a voice telling me not to fear the events that were unfolding in my life. I understood I was being offered a gift. God would help me through all my trials." Several months after this, her grandchild was born, and Jolene quickly bonded with him. She wrote: "I love this grandson deeply." (Who ever would have thought that a two-month-old child would be an "Anna" for a grandmother in pain over the news of a future grandchild?)
Our Simeons Force Us Deeper
When Mary heard Simeon's pronouncement, she was already living at a deeper level of life. Her struggle and her response at the time of the Annunciation indicate her depth of spiritual awareness. Mary's faith shone through as she accepted the Holy One's invitation to allow her womb to be a sacred vessel for Jesus. But Simeon's words forced her even deeper. She had to face the questions of "when" and "what if" and "how" all over again. Mary had to dip deeply into her reservoir of faith in order to move beyond the dread and fears that naturally arose. She had to stretch and reach again for the hand of God and believe that she could hold it tightly when her time of suffering came.
Excerpted from Your Sorrow Is My Sorrow by Joyce Rupp, Mary Southard. Copyright © 1999 Joyce Rupp. Excerpted by permission of The Crossroad Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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