When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.’ (Matthew 11:2–6 NRSV)
Compassion, as so many other features of human existence, has both a horizontal and a vertical axis. It is difficult to get our hands around it, difficult to work it into our lives, difficult to receive it as gift, difficult to pass it on to our neighbor if we ignore one of these two axes.
If we consider the horizontal axis that gives to compassion its this-world stability, we might well dip our toes into the shark-filled waters of etymology. We might ask ourselves what the word that attaches to the practice means. What are its constituent parts? Where did it come from? Why do we find the descriptive powers of the word to be adequate? Why do we still speak the word?
Compassion, of course, means, to experience with another or even to suffer with another. It is passion—poignant, compelling experience—that does not come to us in solitude. It is not contemplative or isolated or alone. Compassion only becomes real, only make sense, when we are in the company of another.
It is not mere passion. It is com-passion.
Last evening I broke bread with friends I had not seen in twelve years.
Around their welcoming table, we shared more than bread.
In the minutes that the day allotted to us, we jousted at catching up on twelve summers and twelve winters of life lived apart and with only token letters and email to bring our parallel universes into meaningful contact.
Almost miraculously, the twelve years made themselves small. It was almost as though they did not exist, almost as though their divisive, separating, isolating duration was nothing. It felt as though, just week or perhaps last month, we had been together, laughing, praying, sharing life on the Foggy Island where our lives first intersected.
In the warmth of their home, the savor of the food they prepared for this wandering pilgrim, the attentive, probing questions, the concentrated listening, the moist eyes, the freedom to describe both joyful oases and large, lethal deserts, I experienced compassion.
Through the marvel of words and care, these old friends entered my own small, fragile life. They shared its poignance and its banality. They took on a bit of its deepest pain. They laughed over joys they had not themselves known, but which—strangely—became theirs as we came together to share space, bread, and words.
I experienced compassion.
Then there exists a vertical axis when we think of this compassion thing. The capacity for compassion and the strength to practice it come from above. Compassion is a God thing. Its potential is woven into creation. Far from a maudlin sentiment it bears the very possibility of community. We are wired with the preternatural capacity to enter into and share the poignant experience of another, if we can discover the courage and the vision to make that potential real.
Compassion is a gift from a Creator who would one day defy all the cosmos’ long odds and incarnate himself into the world of his creatures. He would live with them, he would become like them, he would know the totality of their experience, save that of sin.
When John the Baptist, dispirited, disappointed and confused, watched his muscles atrophy and his calling shatter amid the squalor of an Herodian prison, the opportunity presented itself to ask the question that was almost too terrible to be spoken:
Are you the one to come … or shall we wait for another? he inquired of Jesus through an emissary.
Jesus, in his way, provides an answer than is both broader and deeper than the question that elicits it.
Leaning upon the ancient words of a prophet, he conflates passages that we identify as Isaiah 35 and 61.
They were daring words, inserted provocatively into the life of a community that believed it had lost everything. They were words spoken into a desert, words that dared to question the alleged finality of that dry place, dared to deconstruct its absolute rule over the lives of people who had forgotten how to hope. They were dancing words shouted out in a funeral parlor. They were defiant words, moist, humid, irrigating words that penetrated the claims of the desert and laughed derisively at its mocking, killing sands and their Babylonian desert-maker:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.’
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
(Isaiah 35:1–10 NRSV)
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’S favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
(Isaiah 61:1–4 NRSV)
They were words of compassion.
John, do you see the tears, the paralysis, and the captivity of the most desperate people attended to from on high? Do you see their passion shared, their plight regarded, their experience taken seriously, and then healed?
Then you have seen your God, whose divine habit is to enter into and share the life of his creatures.
Blessed is the one who does not stumble over such selfless, community-forging, generous solidarity. For when you come upon such a thing—call it compassion if you will—you behold the very fingerprints of God.