During a thirty minute wait in a physician assistant’s office a few weeks ago, I had enough time to read all of the informational pamphlets on a dozen different drugs and conditions. When my provider excused herself to consult with one of the doctors, I learned all about unpronounceable medications and rheumatoligical conditions. There is a drug that inserts itself into DNA and strangles cell replication and another drug that doctors don’t even know how it works for autoimmune diseases, just that it does. And there is a condition so odd that it is called a phenomenon. One of the last-ditch treatments for this Raynaud’s Phenomenon, when blood flow to the hands and feet is severely reduced, is nerve surgery called a sympathectomy. The nearby nerves, named sympathetic, that control the blood vessels in the hands and feet are cut in order to “interrupt their exaggerated response.” I understand that the surgery strips away troublesome nerves around the dangerously constricting blood vessels, but the word “sympathectomy” sounds dreadful. I wonder if some of our personal sympathy is being cut out of us these troublesome days.
The word is defined as “feelings of sorrow for someone else’s misfortune” or “understanding between people.” And it seems that every time I open up a newspaper (Yes, we still receive a real paper in a tube by our driveway; it’s good for the kids to run up there and read the headlines before flipping to the comics and fun page!) or scroll through news websites, there is horror and sorrow: Syria, ISIS, our own cities and campuses. It’s easy to shake my head and keep flipping the paper while in my comfortable kitchen, but I must not. I must not ignore sympathy. I must nurture my uncomfortable feelings of sorrow for others’ misfortune and strive to understand others’ plights. When an ambulance or police car zips past us on the road, we all cross ourselves as a quick prayer; “Help them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” I’m trying to do the same when reading news stories.
God has sympathy for us. He became one of us, uniting himself with humanity. “And the word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).” God, in the person of Jesus, pitched his tent (dwelt) with us like the traveling tabernacle of old. It was the architectural expression of God’s presence with Israel; Jesus is the human expression of God’s presence with us. In the Nicene Creed, written in AD 325 even before the canon of the New Testament was finally accepted, we affirm, “For us men and our salvation he came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary and was made man.” The point of a creed is that it is truth about God. The word credo means “I believe;” I believe this truth, these sacred words, this reality. The reminder of truth is solid grounding in the uncertainties and problems of life. He came down from heaven for us and our salvation; halleluia! Yes, I believe.
And Jesus has sympathy for us. While on the earth, he was moved by people’s suffering. “When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he began to teach them many things (Mark 6:34).” Later on in the chapter is the miracle of the loaves and fishes. He had sorrow for their misfortune; he understood. Even though he knew what was going to happen when his friend Lazarus died (John 11), “he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled” at the sisters’ weeping and pain. Here is where we find a favorite verse for children to memorize, the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.” He actually wept. According to Hebrews 4:15, “For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
From our catechism, “Jesus knew and loved us each and all during his life, his agony, and his passion, and gave himself up for each one of us. The son of God loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20). Jesus’ Sacred Heart, pierced by our sins and for our salvation, is quite rightly considered the chief sign and symbol of that… love with which the divine Redeemer continually loves the eternal Father and all human beings with out exception (#478).
So we can read the news and embrace those feelings of sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. We can draw close to Jesus, who understands and loves all human beings without exception. Let us not cut away our sympathies (except for Raynaud’s Phenomenon).