29th Sunday of the Year–October 17, 1976–CNR
John Henry Newman once wrote a very beautiful sermon, entitled “Christian Sympathy” (PPS, IV, p. 116-27). In the sermon, Newman attempted to make his congregation appreciate the depths and the extent of their communion with one another, both in the pains and griefs, joys and sorrows, of the old Adam, but also in the repentance and hope, love and promise they all shared in Christ. He complained that we fall so far short of the full communication with one another that should be natural to us, that we leave so many common depths unexplored; and he sought to encourage a deeper, wider, more spontaneous communion of minds and hearts, sympathy and affection.
The sermon was recalled to my mind by the central assertion of our second reading today: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but one who was tempted in every way that we are.” That wonderful revelation immediately expands the bounds of the natural communion we experience as human beings. All that goes under the name of human sympathy, intersubjectivity, spontaneity now includes Jesus Christ too. In him God himself has become a sharer in that founding human communion, and there is nothing in our human experience that he did not himself share. With that recognition, we come also to see, as St. Thomas once said, that our relationship with God may have all the familiarity, naturalness, ease that characterizes our relationships with one another. We may, then, approach God’s throne as a throne of grace, entering his presence, not fearfully and as if strangers, but confidently and as sons and daughters, brothers and sisters.
The Epistle to the Hebrews makes only one exception to Christ’s full communion with us: “he never sinned.” At first glance, this may appear to undercut everything else: can that be a true communion which does not include a share in what is so much a part of our living–our selfishness and our sinning? But that is not really so. Not only are we not in need of another partner in our sinning, but also the figure of the Christ in our midst who did not sin offers a hope of deliverance from that false community of sin and grief in which otherwise we are entrapped–that closed circle, end-lessly feeding upon itself, having no natural and internal end, the world Jesus described, of power and rivalry, of domination and slavery, of possessiveness and self-interest. The great exception is the liberating exception: the message of One who fully entered that world and suffered its power and even became the victim of its enslavement, and yet was free there and served there and loved there and thus overcame there. He brought into our closed circle a resource which our crippled communion could not bring or inspire–a willingness to serve rather than to be served, to give his life for the many rather than to cling to it all costs–and with that great love he by himself opened the possibility of an utterly new communion for us, with his God and with and among ourselves.
It is perhaps difficult for us to believe in such a possibility, much more difficult, even, than the challenge of any mere creed. For to believe in the possibility of such communion is to acknowledge its claim upon our own lives, to relativize what we think are simply the hard and absolute necessities of our everyday attitudes, relationships, habits, and to accept what Jesus says, “It is not to be so among you.” No one could believe such a claim by himself, and it is surely one of the purposes of our common gathering here before God each week to sustain us in our faith that it is a genuine possibility. For here not only do we come before the God whose first and last word is always the announcement that this freedom is possible; but we also find ourselves standing next to others who are all too familiar with the impoverished realism of everyday life, but who seek also with us to keep before their eyes a different and a liberating vision and hope and to discover and realize in their lives that new communion with God and with one another that Jesus embodied.
Let us then “confidently approach the throne of grace,” and ask this great mercy and favor and help from him: that he realize in and among us the great work which he himself began and enable us to do in our own time that great and new thing which he, in his sympathy for our weakness, gave his life to make possible.