Last Christmas, during a visit to L’Arche, the organization providing support for people with developmental disabilities, founder Jean Vanier spoke at length about the tenderness of God. He drew me into the space of the birth of the poor Jewish baby in 1st century Bethlehem and helped me imagine the simplicity, the vulnerability of that small infant. I found myself looking into that newborn’s eyes for seconds and even minutes and seeing all the neediness of a helpless child, holding tight, looking at my face. I also saw all the tenderness of God. Eye to eye with divinity in the flesh and blood of a baby. It was amazing.
Now I find myself in another part of the Jesus story—the tense and terrifying drama of Jerusalem. This past weekend on Palm Sunday, with that same infant now grown into a man, I entered the city and saw so much of my life in the desire for the cheers of the crowds, the longing for popularity, the success of ideas that attract big audiences. But then in the blink of an eye, it all collapses.
What was the idea that they cheered? What was the idea that they couldn’t tolerate just a few days later? That small child had grown into a man whose primary message was as simple as it was disruptive: “I won’t judge the weak, the open, the vulnerable, the ugly, the lost. I won’t exclude anyone. I will always stand apart from anyone who says that there are some who matter less. God is love, unconditional love. I am here to share experiences of what it means to be close to that kind of lover. It means no exceptions ever.”
It was too much—his unwillingness to take a stand against the Romans, against the criminals, against the guilty, against the powerless. Don’t we all need someone who will make decisions and separate right from wrong? Don’t we need someone to make the judgments so we can know which way to go, who to follow, how to get to success, who is to blame for mistakes? Jesus’ answer was, apparently, no. you don’t need all that at all. You just need to love yourself, accept your God-given beauty, and revere and radiate the beauty of others where ever you go. everything else is a distraction.
Vanier spoke often of Etty Hillesum, the young Jewish Holocaust victim, when we were with him. She wrote:
“We have to fight them (fears) daily, like fleas, those many small worries about the morrow, for they sap our energies…. The things that have to be done must be done, and for the rest we must not allow ourselves to become infested with thousands of petty fears and worries, so many motions of no confidence in God. Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and reflect it towards others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world.”
As we enter this vortex of self-emptying and mysterious fulfillment Christians call Holy Week and as we join with our Jewish brothers and sisters in the celebration of freedom called Passover, her words are an invitation to me to travel this path with an eye that will enable me to survive all the holy weeks of life—to survive the fears that bind me and all of us in bondage, to survive in the gardens of prayer when it feels like we’re sweating blood, to survive in the service of washing other people’s feet in total simplicity, to survive the terrors of being labeled a loser like Peter and then the guilt of weeping about that same terror, to survive the heartbreak of a parent’s agony as children are lost or killed before their eyes, to survive with a consciousness that runs to the places of despair and removes the stones that create that despair, to even survive the recognition of light—yes, the most difficult recognition of all—that I am and you are destined for light, living in light, fully alive only in the light of God’s love.
Imagine being so close to “the spirit that alone is free” that on Easter morning, you hear God’s own voice saying your name. Mary Magdalene was changed forever by one word.
That was all Jesus said, but that’s all she needed to hear. She knew that, like a bolt of energy coursing through her body, her love was alive forever. She knew she was seen, recognized, loved. Forever. Imagine that celebration not once a year but every day, every moment. Imagine that consciousness.
The more peace within each of us, says young Etty, the more in the world. I hope we can each find a little more of that peace as we travel our many roads of passing over and becoming free and remember the one whose only wish for us was that we know and experience the sufficiency of God who is love, from birth to death and beyond. Always. No exceptions.
Timothy Shriver is chairman & CEO of the Special Olympics.