Suffering Servants

Suffering Servants

Lent is a church season devoted to reflection and the work of the heart.  It’s a time for asking why we are here and what supports and what resists our intentions for living more faithfully and lovingly.  In the classic pattern of western Christian spirituality, Lent invites us into the solemn work of inner cleansing or purgation, so that the way within us might be prepared for illumination and eventual union of the soul with God.

The church has turned to the four Suffering Servant passages in the latter part of the book of Isaiah in its attempts to take a deeper look at what is ours to do.  In the fourth Servant Song we find this haunting picture:

Who has believed what we have heard?

And to whom has the arm of the Lord

been revealed?

For he grew up before him like a

young plant,

and like a root out of dry ground;

he had no form or majesty that we

should look at him,

nothing in his appearance that

we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by others;

a man of suffering and

acquainted with infirmity;

and as one from whom others

hide their faces

he was despised, and we held him

of no account.

Surely he has borne our infirmities

And carried our diseases;

Yet we accounted him stricken,

Struck down by God, and afflicted.

But he was wounded for our transgressions,

crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the punishment that

made us whole,

and by his bruises we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray;

we have all turned to our own way,

and the Lord has laid on him

the iniquity of us all.      (Isaiah 53:1-6)

In the Catholic tradition, in which I was brought up, it was a practice to do the Stations of the Cross and to reflect on the suffering love of God for us.  Isaiah’s poetry seems to capture the vulnerable heart of what Christians are drawn to in remembering Christ’s passion.  Why are we moved so by this image of a Suffering Servant?  What truths and guidance does it offer to us as we seek to go further in our journey to God?

This passage from Isaiah appears to voice the exact opposite message of America’s self-help industry.  Isaiah does not intuit a prosperity gospel or a strategy to polish up the self and smooth over all of its warts.  In fact, he seems to believe that the true healing of the self lies in some voluntarily suffering other helping us to see our own broken and diseased nature as we gaze upon his broken and diseased form.  That’s why this passage disarms us.  It has the courage to show us who we are and the wisdom to know that healing comes in the embrace of our nature and not a flight from it.  No more plastic surgery on the body or the soul.  Our true beauty lay not in our carefully crafted projections of our ideal selves, but in our precious vulnerabilities and wounds.  Let the skin wrinkle and the nose stay as it is.  Let the sharing of self be real and uncertain.  The marketed versions of ourselves do not feed the soul.

At our church board meetings, we try to spend time connecting through personal sharing and spiritual conversation.  Recently, we spoke about an email meditation from the Center for Action and Contemplation, using thoughts from evolutionary theologian, Ilia Delio.  She suggests that one implication of bringing an evolutionary lens to our Christian tradition is that the task of a Christ follower is no longer to be seen as fleeing from the world, but as fleeing from our sense of separation.  We found this insight provocative.  It made sense to us that God is working out God’s dreams within our evolving world and that part of God’s dreams would entail our ability to sense not only our separateness, but also our essential oneness.

As Ilia’s meditation moved on, however, she began to write about the necessity of suffering in the accomplishment of God’s work among us.  One board member said that she liked everything except the suffering part.  Indeed.  In our consumer culture, we are trained to “have it our way.”  “I’d like the spiritual enlightenment, please, without the suffering, thank you!”  And don’t we have myriad voices promising us just this?  Union with God without all of that troubling and outdated purgation.

The contemplative path, I believe, is the path which Jesus offered.  It is not the path of improving and marketing the old self.  It’s the path of so deeply opening up and letting go of the self, that a new self begins to take hold.  In so many ways, our Scriptures and tradition tell us that Christ is to be met within us at our deepest and most authentic core; but, that, we are distracted from this meeting by tending to the projects for success of the superficial self.  Ilia Delio is right.  In her synthesis of religion and science, she understands that evolution is the expression of God’s love toward ever greater depth of reality.  Love becomes real, not as we flee from suffering, but embrace it with a vulnerable and open heart.  This may not market well, but it does seem to feed the soul and illumine the way for all who would go further to the heart of God.