One of my favorite things to do as a priest is talk to parishioners about liturgy. And from time to time in these conversations, someone will express their nostalgia for the “old Prayer Book.” And it’s not just the poetry of the Elizabethan English they miss. People often miss its more penitential language…its more vivid descriptions of sin and judgment (for example, its Confession of Sin where ones “acknowledges and bewails his manifold sins and wickedness”). So, when I first came across our Collect of the Day for today, it immediately sounded to me like something out of the old Prayer Book.
For context, here is the prayer:
Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Here, attributed to us in a single prayer, are “ignorance,” “weakness,” spiritual “blindness” and “unworthiness”! If this language sounds a bit harsh to your ears, I want to shine a light on the notes of grace in this prayer. Alongside its colorful description of our shortcomings, this prayer also presumes a loving God who will look favorably on us. It still presumes, in its petition, that God will show us his mercy. That God will look on our weakness with compassion.
This allusion to God’s compassion is a thread that connects across our scripture readings this morning. First, we have a word of compassion from the Prophet Jeremiah to the Jewish people in exile. Jeremiah announces that God is preparing to bring them home and restore their kingdom, and to raise up a wise and righteous King to shepherd them. Then, we hear of the compassionate shepherd in the familiar words of 23rd psalm – the shepherd who leads us beside still waters and follows us with goodness and mercy. And finally, there is Jesus – Jesus who looks with compassion on the crowds in Mark’s gospel. Now, when we talk about compassion, we should be clear about what we mean. Because as one commentator notes, in the English language “pity” and “compassion” are too often used interchangeably. But pity, he suggests, is a sentiment that can be expressed from a distance. While compassion implies a deep closeness and solidarity. The German equivalent of the word literally means “suffer-with.” And even better is the Greek word translated “compassion” in the New Testament. The first part of the Greek work for compassion means intestines, implying that to feel compassion is to be “moved so deeply by something that you feel it in the pit of your stomach” – remember that in the ancient world, the stomach, not the heart, was the emotional center of the human body.1 Can you think of an experience from your life that illustrates this understanding of compassion? When I considered my own, I was brought back to a time when, as a young adult living in New York City, I had to have major spinal surgery. I wish I could remember the names of all the wonderful people who sent me cards and flowers. But I will never forget that my mother slept on a couch in my studio apartment and held a cold washcloth to my forehead when the pain was unbearable.
In our Christian faith, we see God’s compassionate solidarity with us expressed in the Incarnation: what could be more illustrative of God’s solidarity with us than God’s decision to take on our human nature in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. When we meet this Jesus in today’s Gospel, he and his disciples have been so overwhelmed by the crowds, they haven’t even had a moment to eat. So, Jesus leads his disciples in a boat to a “deserted place by themselves” (or as other translations describe it, a “desert place” or even a “wilderness” place). The crowds, though, are so unrelenting in their pursuit, they anticipate where Jesus and his disciples are going and “arrive ahead of them.” And it is here, Mark tells us, in this desert place, that Jesus sees the crowds and has “compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” This compassion, this visceral feeling in the pit of his stomach, leads Jesus to do something extraordinary. Unfortunately, our lectionary chose to cut these verses from our reading…but immediately after Jesus looks on the crowd with compassion, he performs the only miracle described in each of the four Gospels: the Feeding of the 5,000 from just five loaves of bread and two fishes. Jesus is so moved with compassion for these sheep that he transforms the barren desert place into an oasis of grace.
For many, many months, we were confined in solitary, desert places. I am relieved, as I’m sure you are, to finally be free from this isolation. To be able to re-gather, not only here at church, but also, increasingly, in other places in our lives. If I’m honest, though, many days it feels like we are still in the wilderness. The wounds of this global pandemic are not yet fully healed. For all the joy that comes with more and more freedom, there are as many challenges. I have found this to be true, and I’ve heard it echoed by many of you, as well. There is the constant negotiation and re-negotiation of expectations. Disappointments are widespread. Resentments are rampant. Relationships often feel strained. Maybe we haven’t left the wilderness yet, and maybe we won’t for a while still. I certainly don’t have the answers, but I put my hope in this: after a prolonged Eucharistic fast, as come back together week after week to receive this great sacrament together, I trust we will find the healing and renewal we need. I take comfort knowing that Jesus took the meager offerings of that desert crowd, blessed them, broke them, and transformed them into a feast with baskets of food left over. And I trust he can create that very same abundance for us. The spiritual food of the Eucharist is one of Christ’s greatest gifts to us – a tangible sign of his compassionate solidarity with us. It is the nourishment that sustains us through all the changes and chances of this life. When we receive this holy sacrament, we receive grace upon grace – chief among them, forgiveness of our sins and union with Christ in his offering of himself for us. This mystical food strengthens our union with Christ and each other, knitting us more and more into a fellowship of love and grace.
In a moment, we will pray a prayer that, to me, is one of the most beautiful prayers in the entire Prayer Book. In it, we are pointed to another act born of Christ’s compassion, his offering of himself on the cross. It begins, “Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace.” As you come to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist today…
- may Christ’s arms of love embrace you
- may his compassionate gaze heal you
- and may the nourishment you receive in this oasis of grace sustain you this day and always.
 Douglas John Hall in “Theological Perspective on Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 in Feasting on the Word (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), Year B, Volume 3¸ p.262.