In today’s readings, Stephen is stoned to death although he is innocent of any wrongdoing. In his final breaths, he commends his spirit into God’s hands and asks God to forgive those who are killing him. The psalm refrain reinforces Stephen’s words – "Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit"- and the verses claim God as rock and fortress. In the Gospel, Jesus declares that he is the bread of life and all who believe in him will neither hunger nor thirst. As we read these words we know that Jesus, too, will soon commend his spirit into God’s hands and forgive those who have betrayed, abandoned, and killed him.
These readings present for us the ideal toward which we are to strive – total surrender into God and unmerited forgiveness. Today, I struggle to live up to that ideal and I don’t think I am there yet.
My niece’s 9-month-old baby died last week, a victim of "shaken baby syndrome" so violent that it fractured her skull. Little Chelsea never regained consciousness, slowly slipping away as her brain swelled, until she died. The daycare babysitter, a family friend, was arrested and charged. This bubbly, smart and active baby girl was betrayed by the woman into whose care she was entrusted. Though innocent, she endured torture and death.
My niece and her husband are heart-broken and enraged. They, too, were betrayed. Their precious child was ripped from their lives unfairly and unjustly by someone they thought was a friend. They have the crib, high chair, clothes, car seat, and all the trappings that go with having a baby, but now they have no child to use them. The void is unspeakably huge. We who loved Chelsea are nailed to the cross, with no indication that the resurrection could possibly follow. Can we so easily commend her life into God’s hands and forgive the woman who killed her?
It is far easier to preach the charism of the cross and proclaim the Gospel than it is to live them when your heart is breaking. I want to scream "No!" from heaven to hell. I painfully realize anew that human beings are wonderful but sometimes terribly flawed creatures, that life on this earth is worth living but ultimately transient, and that while our desire to hold and heal each other is boundless, our ability to actually do so is limited. Human hands cannot hold the immensity of this pain, heal these wounds, nor give the capacity to rise above the anger and betrayal to forgiveness. Only divine hands, those tender and infinite hands of God, can do that.
So when I have screamed and sobbed and poured out my anguish, when I am emptied and hollowed out, what is left to me? Nothing of this world remains, my own power and control is vanquished, and there is nothing to which I can cling, except God. And this foundation holds me fast. I cannot run to a place where God’s love doesn’t reach. The bread of life comes down from heaven for us who hunger and thirst for justice, for healing, and for peace. Our tears are but one current in the river of tears flowing from the aching heart of God, pierced again by the most horrific of human actions. Jesus is nailed to the cross with us, walking us into the darkest of tombs while holding out the promise that eventually we will emerge. It is only into these divine hands that I can commend Chelsea’s spirit and my own.
I am not there yet. I still fight and rage and bounce back and forth. I pray for the grace, for myself and for all of us, to surrender our spirits into the steadfast, everlasting hands of the God who suffers with us, who knows our pain, and who has promised healing and peace. I pray that although we seek the justice that is due, we may not be held bound by hate, anger, and vengeance. I pray that we may free our hearts by forgiving, and move on to live a life enriched and made full by Chelsea’s memory.
Over and over again I pray: Into your hands, O Lord, I commend Chelsea. Into your hands, O Lord, I commend the woman who killed her. Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.
Amy Florian is a teacher and consultant working in Chicago. For many years she has partnered with the Passionists. Visit Amy’s website: http://www.amyflorian.com/.