At the Foot of the Cross 2007

Were You There When They Laid Him In The Tomb? - Compassion

It's hard to tell precisely when, in this country at least, compassion stopped being a virtue and became, if not a vice, then at the very least a sign of weakness. For me, personally, it was during the 1984-5 Miners' Strike when we were all expected to take sides and when it was terribly difficult to explain to people that you could oppose the strike and feel compassion for the people, both at the same time. Here were people, with no hope of escaping from their mining villages, no hope of keeping the mines open, little hope (as events have shown) of acquiring new skills and new jobs. Seeing all this, I was sorry for their anger but I was even more sorry for their sorrow. 

When Jesus had died, a secret disciple called Joseph broke cover, went out into the open and asked Pilate fort body; and when they had taken it down from the Cross they anointed it and laid it in the tomb as a temporary measure until the rituals could be completed after the Sabbath. Joseph, who had been frightened to be seen with a winner, broke cover for a loser: Joseph who had kept an even lower profile than his fellow Pharisee Nicodemus during the high level discussions about Jesus, ensured, with one gesture, that he would never again be part of those high level discussions. 

There are many ways of thinking about compassion but for me it is affirming solidarity with losers; and, just as there is a gradation of loss, so there is of compassion, with the greatest compassion needed for the greatest loss. It is easy to be generous with those who show a chance of changing their situation, spiritual or worldly, from one of impoverishment to one of growth and hope; in our culture we even have the phrase: "The deserving poor"; but Jesus spent His life with the undeserving poor. People who were prostitutes and tax extortionists, who were destitute or disabled, or who were just women, did not enjoy any social mobility at all; for at the time of Jesus there was very little social mobility as we know it now; and so compassion was a virtue much in need; whereas our instant reaction to want, living in a society with very great social mobility, is to ask why these people are not doing this or that: "We have paid our taxes, what else do they want?" 

During my last year at school the American Ambassador, Walter Annenberg, visited us for a debate and said that people should pull themselves up by their own boot straps; I asked him what they were to do if they had no boots. I have been asking the same question ever since. Of course I ask it in a political context but it is also right on this day of all days to ask it in a theological context. Jesus lived with and for the poor and, at His death, He was as low as any with whom He consorted: he died a criminal amongst criminals; most of His motley band had disappeared; the religious authorities had seen off yet another Messianic pretender; and He would not be accorded proper Jewish funeral rites. It is difficult for us as children of the Resurrection to imagine the depth of the degradation and defeat of Jesus. In spite of what happened afterwards, you can still feel the cold horror of it in the letters of St. Paul and even a frisson in the Gospel of John written some 70 years later. This was not just the end of a cause, no matter how dimly perceived by His followers, this was also the end of the life of a man who had been deeply admired and deeply loved. But nobody who gathered round the corpse of Jesus when He was taken down from the Cross had anything to gain and might yet have much to lose. Joseph did not know what the authorities might do to him and the women who anointed the body did not know what was to become of them. We can hear the complete desolation and bewilderment in the voices of the travellers on the road to Emmaus; but at least they were getting out of the Jerusalem hothouse; those who cared for the body were in the middle of the blood and the mire, the threat and the intrigue, the degradation and despair. 

This is where we are called to be; and we are so greatly needed. Perhaps we were a little naive in those days when our broadcasters were upbeat and celebratory; perhaps it all looks a little simplistic and childish. But our compassion is needed now more than ever when a major part of our entertainment industry is concerned with sneering at people, making a public spectacle of them, humiliating them before millions of eyes. The reality of so-called 'reality television' is that it sets out deliberately to degrade those who take part in it and, by association, it degrades those who are the spectators. But the reply we get when we express compassion for poor, benighted, misled participants is that they are only getting what they deserve. Which poses the question: are we, who live such comfortable lives getting what we deserve? And are those who labour in the parched and unforgiving fields of Africa also getting what they deserve? What we deserve in a temporal, physical sense is surely a matter for God; but what people deserve from us, as the agents of god, is a matter for us. 

Every minute of every day losers are burned or buried in shallow graves; every day thousands of babies die; every day women are degraded and oppressed; every day we are confronted, at home as well as in distant lands, by desperate people leading desperate lives. Every day Jesus is laid in the tomb and how often are we there? 

And compassion is more than financial generosity, it is the most exacting facet of Christian love; it is the love that expects no return, no thanks from the recipient, no warm inner glow. After all, a corpse cannot thank anyone and, even for a devout man like Joseph, the thanks of Galilean peasant women would have counted for nothing. Yet there was that part of Joseph, so fearful during the life of Jesus when He might have received a loving glance from The Master in exchange for generosity, that part of Joseph which sprang from the deepest recess of a deep heart, an  unconditional compassion which cannot be measured by ordinary measures. There is no return on compassion: there are no targets, no trade offs, no bottom lines; there are not even honourable mentions in front of peers; and yet this is where we must be. 

There are some who talk of "Compassion fatigue' but they are the setters of financial targets, the scrutineers of bottom lines, the makers of deals, the fixers of tariffs; all very proper but wide of the mark. The whole point about compassion is that it is at its richest when it grows out of the thinnest soil of our tired flesh. Compassion is the most demanding of the virtues which is why we all know that we have often failed; but we are here now. There is nowhere else to go. 

Prayer: Lord, Jesus Christ, forgive us for all the times when we have failed to show compassion in the face of suffering. Give us the magnanimity to avoid judgment and the vision to see You in all those who suffer. Amen.