(This is from my regular column, “Bridge Work” from the May issue of Ministry and Liturgy Magazine, May 2015)
Last year I was called to the hospital to anoint a woman dying of cancer. The chaplain informed me over the phone while I was still in my office that the patient was also a prisoner. He explained that an officer would be at her side and that my presence was already approved to pray with her.
When I arrived at the door of her hospital room, I knocked lightly. I entered and the woman was in bed near the door. A heavy-set officer sat on the other side of her bed, just a couple of feet away. I bent down at her bedside and she immediately began speaking about her faith. She told me how much she believed in God and she prayed for her many children and grandchildren. Her eyes sparkled from the depths of her profound faith embracing her cancer. Her skin seemed thin, her arms and hands revealing her many tattoos.
As I bent down and slowly opened the container of oil, my eyes caught the handcuffs dangling from the officer’s belt. The more I tried to focus on the intimacy of the moment and the profound outreach to her ailing body, I could not help but have one eye on the handcuffs that were reminding her of the earthly ties that still bound her. The more I spoke with her and prayed with her, the more I felt that she was one of the most spiritually free people I had met in a long while.
This image of the handcuffs and the anointing remains with me. We all seek the freedom of God’s love for us and yet we are all bound on earth by our past decisions, our human choices and our lives that have not turned out as we had planned. This is the place where Jesus is, for he runs toward our pain and our lack of freedom. Jesus will unlock the chains of our pain and our earthly sin.
As I reflect on the gospels beginning from the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary time, I know within my heart, this bedside is the place of the Shepherd’s care. These are the people whom Jesus longs to hold, to heal and to forgive. This is the bedside of liberation and love. This is the bedside of mercy. As my years of experience creep up on me, I surrender to such mercy because I do not have any other answers that will set people free.
We all must be spiritually free in our ministry within the Church to offer the Good Shepherd’s mercy. Sometimes I notice a competition among our local parishes. I notice this rivalry within one parish to become more “catholic” than the liturgists in the next parish. One parish may more strictly follow the laws of Church teaching and adhere to the rubrics of liturgical rituals more rigorously than the people in other parishes, although in truth there is no perfect scorecard. I witness in many parishes God’s mercy being offered only after people start living the truth of Church teaching. I hear often from ministers that people need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps so they may fit into the truth of Christ’s presence within the Church. I fear that God’s mercy is melting into the notion that we must first save ourselves. This temptation handcuffs God’s love for God’s beloved in our world.
We do not dispense God’s mercy nor does it come from our power and control. God’s mercy reveals itself from people who are marginalized, broken, lonely, addicted and in pain. These are the people who will define for us what freedom is and how we are to find the Shepherd who runs after the lost and holds tightly the lives of the sinful. I know through my many years of listening to people on the margins of society, that I have no power over God’s love when I open the container of sacred oil or sit in the quiet, sacred room where we offer confessions. I simply gaze on the fact of the human handcuffs of sin and the divine liberation of love for all people, in all times and seasons.
These gospels lead us to the altar of God. We hear within this entire set of Sunday gospels the miracle of the loaves and fishes. There is more than enough of Jesus’ presence to go around. We do not have stifle or restrict the real presence of Jesus. Christ Jesus is the truth we seek, the liberating love that opens our lives to the Kingdom here on earth.
Jesus says to us that we should stop murmuring over who is entitled to the love God has for people. God will do the drawing near; God will open our hearts to make a home here on earth. I believe in the freedom that our ancestors found in faith. This is the freedom that I take from the altar to the bedsides of people who wait for miraculous healings and for God to unlock the cuffs of their sin and past mistakes. From altar table to bedside is the home of true mercy, the place of freedom for all God’s beloved.