Our reflection for the third week of Lent is written by Br Alain Ragneneau, a counsellor with the Uzima programme for people with HIV, which is run by the Jesuit parish of St Joseph the Worker in Kangemi, a suburb of Nairobi.
An African saying remains fixed in my mind as a challenge: “The gods are a bit mad and, if you really want to serve them as you should, you need to be somewhat intoxicated too.”
If I had to take only one page of the gospels, I would choose the story of a father who celebrates the return of his son. This parable in Luke never ceases to shock, question and provoke me. It defies all wisdom: how can a father take back, without a word of reproach, the ungrateful son who had symbolically killed him by demanding his share of inheritance when he was still alive? The father that Jesus presents to us is not reasonable, he is ‘weak’, and his ‘justice’ is incomprehensible. His paternal affection blinds him: doesn’t he realise how ambiguous his son’s motivations are, that his return home is prompted mostly by his hunger and not by the grief he caused his father? It is not right to slaughter the “fatted calf” reserved for annual family gatherings and to welcome this good-for-nothing back. The God that Jesus reveals to us will always be shocking, disconcerting and disturbing in his unconditional love that bears so little resemblance to ours.
In the 11 years that I have stood alongside people with HIV, I have witnessed a hidden suffering – that of Paul. Paul told me he used to be faithful to his wife, who stayed back in their village to cultivate the land while he struggled in the city to pay their children’s school fees… until the day he had an affair with a young pretty woman who did everything to “get him”. He now believes she wanted to get revenge on the man who infected her by infecting as many men as possible. Paul, a respected and respectable person, didn’t have the courage to tell his wife when he went home for Christmas. Later, it was too late: she was infected and transmitted the virus to their last-born child. Sure, it is “statistically normal’ to have a mistress in town while the wife stays back in the village: the media tells us one in three men does it in Nairobi. But then we must cope with the innocent little beings that start out in life with such a handicap. At adolescence, they rebel in silence and ask awkward questions: “Can you tell me why I was born with this baggage?” Few couples talk about it; each carries his or her suffering in silence.
Where can the strength to speak out be found? Where to find eyes that understand, welcome, forgive and restore life? The tax collectors and others of poor reputation sought out Jesus, to listen to him, because he gave them hope, he offered friendship and compassion, he restored their self-confidence, he opened up the future by telling them an incredible parable about the Father of Mercy. While not denying his son’s errors and faults, this father listens to his suffering and yearns to welcome him in restored communion as soon as possible. This is not an angry but a grieved father, grieved at the sorrowful experience of his son. Above all this is a father who is so happy to find his son alive. Here is the father’s ‘justice’:“Let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” It is the unconditional welcome of our heavenly Father that will give Paul the courage to face up to his guilty conscience and to open a family dialogue. Paul, and many others, will be able to believe in such a welcome if they experience it from us, whoever we may be: an unconditional welcome that does not judge but receives them in their wounded humanity with compassion.
At Easter, may we open our doors and our hearts to one of our wounded sisters or brothers, never mind why they are wounded. My excuse to do nothing is often that the ‘wounded’ are so many that welcoming one would be nothing but a drop of water in the ocean of human misery: no big difference. Yes, but it will make a big difference for the one who is welcomed. “God adds nothing to the love between us; he manifests himself there” (Bellet). Let’s dare to be “a bit intoxicated”, to change our habits to welcome on the day of new Life a person who no longer expects it.
But after having done everything in my power, it is hard not to be crushed by the immense crowd of history’s forgotten ones, the victims of unjust institutions. How can I believe in a Merciful Father for all? How can we believe that justice has the last word? In his beautiful letter on Hope, Benedict XVI shares his conviction with us: “The question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or in any case the strongest argument, in favour of faith in eternal life.”
I think about this and remember Esther, who vanished from our neighbourhood some months ago. She didn’t know her mother much, her father not at all, and she has had to get by alone in life. How many times has she been brutalised, violated and humiliated? When such work was available, Esther washed laundry, but resorted to prostitution when she had to pay the rent and her children’s school fees. To be sure, she got AIDS. Her life was unstable and she moved nearly every month until she disappeared. I am firmly convinced that in Esther exists the capacity for a more dignified life, an opening to the Mystery of Life. And I want to believe that for Esther, and for all others who have had a similar life, diminished, destroyed, and who have left us, there is the hidden face of Life, a deeper dimension of what it means to be human. I want to believe that what I ‘saw’ is not everything of their life, that they will know at last the beauty of their profound identity in the Risen One, that their name will be engraved on the ‘white stone’ of the Apocalypse (Rev 2:17).
On Easter Sunday, it will be my open door that manifests this Resurrection and this justice of “the slightly mad God” of Love. May Mary, who in the Gospel of John speaks but once, to help those who don’t have wine for their party, give us the boldness to celebrate.
To read this reflection in French, please go here.
To read the reflection of the second week of Lent, please go here.
To read the reflection of the first week of Lent, please go here.
To read the reflection of Ash Wednesday please go here.