Our country has been battered in recent weeks by an unusual string of powerful winter storms. Swathes of the country flooded, fallen trees all over the place, houses destroyed, blackouts… Scientists were giving explanations for that unusual weather. Some blamed humankind for global warming and changes in the climate caused by it; others saw a rather natural cycle similar to those that have happened over the ages. We can lean towards one explanation or another, but last week the most obvious one was presented by Mr David Silvester, a UKIP councillor down in England: such disastrous weather was God’s punishment inflicted on this godless nation for introducing a godless law. Nobody else saw that coming, but thankfully now it’s been made clear: as the nation we have to repent. I hope you have noticed the irony in my voice.
Regardless of its scale, every disaster questions our personal independence, strength and abilities. Every disaster exposes our weaknesses, fragility and mortality. Moreover, every blow contravenes our deeply-rooted expectation of an ordered, peaceful and happy life. So people have always tried to make sense of all those incomprehensible disasters affecting them. That need to comprehend the incomprehensible has been a driving force in culture, science and religion since the dawn of the human race. Making sense of suffering, pain, hardship, disasters or death has always been the way of dealing with otherwise overwhelming events. In this respect nothing has changed; we still seek explanations and understanding of bad things that have happened to us.
The punishment of God has been a surprisingly common interpretation of disaster. Perhaps it originates in our natural sense of justice where those guilty of crimes must be punished, and consequently everyone that suffers is in fact paying for their sins. Then there are many variations on this reasoning: that we have to pay for the sins of our fathers, or to bear collective responsibility when the good and the bad are affected indiscriminately. We can see that this way of thinking was pretty popular in the Old Testament, where political, military, social or natural disasters were interpreted by the prophets as God’s punishment for the nation’s sins and unfaithfulness. We can find a hint of this in today’s first reading, when the prophet Isaiah recalls a catastrophic Assyrian invasion of northern Israel, followed by massive deportation of the population. Listen to his interpretation of that event: ‘In days past the Lord humbled the land of Zebulun and Naphtali.’ Listening to Jesus in today’s gospel, we can think that he follows the same tradition when he says: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.’ But from many other bits in the gospel we know that Jesus completely rejects the notion of a vulgarly simplistic collective responsibility as being at odds with the idea of loving and compassionate God that considers each person individually. Jesus’ call in today’s gospel: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand’ loses in translation its joyful aspect, present throughout the passage. The original Greek word lamentably rendered as ‘repent’ means changing one’s way of thinking; repentance can be part of that process, but doesn’t necessarily have to be.
Suffering and pain remain mysterious but integral parts of our lives despite all the wonderful scientific developments. Sometimes suffering and pain are thrown at us by powerful Mother Nature, sometimes caused by others, sometimes self-inflicted; sometimes predictable and avoidable, sometimes taking us by surprise or being too overwhelming. Sometimes we can deal with their causes, sometimes only with their effects. What we can always do is to utilise all those unfortunate events to grow stronger, or to be more understanding and compassionate, or to appreciate and respect others… The variety of lessons that we can learn is infinite. You cannot be prepared for many of the things cropping up in your life; but you can decide what to do when they come.