Beliefs Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Good Friday, the end of the world

Attributed to Jan van Eyck
Attributed to Jan van Eyck

Attributed to Jan van Eyck

I entered my mother’s hospital room that morning in December 2012 feeling exhausted and afraid. The bad news was to come fast and thick all day, her sixth in the hospital: cancer cells had been discovered in her spinal fluid. Her blood test showed a protein count that was twenty times normal levels. Cancerous lesions had been found in her skull and bones.

So there was every reason for Mom to have tears in her eyes. I’m pretty sure she knew by then that she was dying, and fast, though we did not openly discuss it for several more days. So it might have seemed natural that she was crying softly while she ate her Cream of Wheat and got a sponge bath from a nurse’s aide while they both gazed intermittently at the television.

But Mom wasn’t crying about the pain of cancer having spread to her bones or the new fear of it being in her spinal fluid, or even about losing her abilities from day to day, right before our eyes.

She was crying because of what was on the television.

And what was on the television was Newtown. “There’s been a shooting at a school in Connecticut,” Mom told me. We watched in horror as reports began coming in about more than two dozen children murdered in cold blood, and the teachers who tried to protect them.

How could such a thing happen?

This past weekend at the Festival of Faith and Writing, I heard Anne Lamott give a beautiful talk that ranged in typical Lamott fashion among all kinds of topics, from writing and suffering and God to her crazy dogs and the fact that her pants wouldn’t fit properly. I’ll probably forget a lot of what she said, but here is one thing I won’t forget:

She realized as she was watching the Newtown coverage that December 14, 2012 was Good Friday, the end of the world.

It wasn’t Good Friday chronologically, but it certainly was theologically. That’s how it felt to me, sitting in my mother’s hospital room. Death was clearly coming for her—in fact, in just over two weeks—and as impossible as that was, how much more impossible that first-graders who had been learning their letters might have glanced up from their worksheets to the last thing they would see in their six or seven years of life: a young man pointing a gun at them.

It was Good Friday, the end of the world.

All of us have Good Fridays in our history. You can’t live too long on this earth without suffering, even if it’s not so horrifying or unthinkable as Newtown. You suffer ill health, or a loved one is dying. You lose your job and a part of your identity. You come home from a war and are traumatized by all you have seen and done.

There are a million and one ways to suffer, and in fact many of us suffer so much that we become inured to the suffering of others.

I preached a sermon today that focused on this question using this painting from the 1420s or 1430s (attributed to Jan van Eyck). I won’t go into the details of the painting except to point out how it encapsulates Jesus’ evocation of Psalm 22 from the cross. He’s surrounded by people who ignore his pain or even mock it; those two guys on horseback to the left seem thoroughly delighted by today’s multiple crucifixions—three for the price of one!—and are probably wondering whether anyone thought to bring a picnic.

And the few members of Jesus’ inner circle who have showed up for his death are positioned far away from him, in the foreground of the painting. Apart from John, none of Jesus’ twelve disciples are even present—not in the painting, not at the cross.

What great measures we take to avoid suffering—our own and other people’s. We can hardly bear it. We look away, change the channel, find a distraction.

But after Newtown, I have an unforgettable image of what God’s compassion might look like. And that is my normally stoic mother, staring at the television with her eyes filled with tears. Her body was riddled with cancer and she was experiencing deep physical pain, but any blindfold she might have once worn to avoid seeing the suffering of others was now discarded.

All that remained was pure compassion. Suffering with.

“There’s been a shooting at a school in Connecticut today.” In other words, somewhere, for someone, today is Good Friday, the end of the world.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

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