COMMENTARY: Do You See What I See?

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c. 2004 Religion New Service

(Tom Ehrich is a writer and computer consultant, managing large-scale database implementations. An Episcopal priest, he lives in Durham, N.C. Visit his Web site at

(UNDATED) Two moments on a Saturday before Christmas: one sad, the other cheerful.

On our way to shopping, we visit my favorite cafeteria for lunch. We fall in line behind an elderly couple who are moving slowly, laboring over each selection. I sense my meal getting cold.

At the drink section the woman reverses course. Her exasperated husband turns to me. “She forgot something,” he says. “Typical woman.” She laughs vaguely, a vacant expression on her face.

What have I just seen? A man putting down his wife in public, in the sort of guy-to-guy exchange that used to be commonplace? A man venting embarrassment at their slowness? A grieving husband whose wife is drifting away from him in some fog of age?

There’s no telling what this signal means. I just know it makes me sad. So much pain in human life, from large agonies to small pinpricks, sometimes self-inflicted.

At the large kitchen-gear store next door we make our gift selection and browse crowded aisles. I remember visiting this store a year ago when it opened and marveling at its savvy technology and well-executed service. Today’s checkout is even smoother.

A young woman cheerfully rings up our order and passes us to another cheerful clerk, who swipes my card and hands me a receipt. I congratulate them on efficient service. The card-swiper starts on the next customer.

What have I just seen? Smart merchandising, of course, a well-trained staff, aggravation avoided, and yet nothing personal. I don’t feel anything as we leave.

The prophet Isaiah saw a day when the messianic king would “stand as a signal to the nations,” a sign that it was time to come home, paradise was being restored, it was safe now, no need to remain in enmity. The “outcasts” and “dispersed” would stream back to Zion, their “jealousy” gone, their hostilities ended.

What would the nations see? Glorious perfection, from splendid temple to well-executed laws, victory over chaos and tawdriness? Would they see the equivalent of this efficient store, where things are well-lighted, well-run and, to judge by the crowds, well-received? Would God’s victory be known in orderliness, prosperity and holy grandeur?

No, something quite different. As Isaiah saw it, the “root of Jesse,” the messianic king, would bear forgiveness, solace, “rest from your pain and turmoil,” freedom for captives, a smoothing of the desert for safe return. The messianic king would declare for the poor and oppressed, not for the proud and prosperous. Messiah would re-order creation, enabling wolf and lamb to co-exist, not taking sides in humanity’s partisan wars. It would be intensely personal and grounded in suffering _ like whatever suffering is on display in the K&W Cafeteria, like the suffering of Jesus on Calvary.

Messiah’s sign would be a people forgiven, not better organized. A redeemer walking alongside exiles, not cheering them or judging them from afar. Sadness embraced, not corrected. Pain cradled in respect, not denounced as someone’s fault. Disorder understood, not named as sin.

I doubt that God cares one way or the other what people buy during this season bearing the Son’s name. I doubt that God has suddenly become interested in our “solemn assemblies” or is waiting for the self-proclaimed righteous to name God’s enemies or to pass God’s judgment. I doubt that polishing our altars or perfecting our public morality means any more to God today than it meant when God wearied of the Israelites and welcomed Babylon’s taking them into exile. If we look to our excellence for a sign of hope, we will see nothing.

Instead, I imagine God walking through the cafeteria line with a couple whose step has slowed, whose hearts are torn, whose pain overflows normal politeness. I don’t understand their disorder, but God does. And God cares, God joins them in their sadness.

And that is a signal worth a homecoming.


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