Bishop Edward B. Sharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Sharfenberger

As one sad narrative unfolds, with rash shootings shattering recovering cityscapes, other kinds of lockdown loom, more stifling than those which pandemic fears fueled. We don’t know, and may never know, against what or whom were trained rashes of bullets, taking down, randomly in recent days, beloved, innocent lives in Albany. Meaning is not to be found in desperate violence, only more pain, a pain that cruelly levies pain as its judgment on a cruel world.

The first response of a wounded, disbelieving community is naturally to identify the offenders, dissect their genesis, convict and jail them. This brings no healing, no peace to the wounded or destroyed. Will this or any other lockdown deter the disease spawned in the mind and heart of those who wield the sword?

By God’s grace, there is another narrative. Not every mind and heart may be open to the hymned balm in Gilead that heals the sin-sick soul. And while the wheels of worldly justice wend their way slowly to process the sorry reprobates, we can turn away from thoughts of retribution and, frankly, fantasies of understanding the mystery of the Darkness that grasps at the Light. We can defer our attention to the One – the only One, who offers healing and forgiveness.

Blaming anyone, no one or everyone will not turn us away from sin, or the violence sin spawns. Fascination with the Devil’s doings only flatters his ego and distracts from what will deliver us from Evil. With respect and kind regards for those who must inform us of the bad news, who apprehend malfeasance and seek ways, legally, even politically, to reform what we term the justice system and the social order, there is no escape from the reality that lives without meaning cannot breed order or peace. And meaning is not found in a surrender to fear or passion, whether steeped in pain, abuse or ideology, however confidently vaunted.

When a community, as a whole and in its members — can they be separated? — is wounded, and is suffering from any illness, whether physical, social or emotional, it is tempting to target an individual, a class, a weaker entity of the social body. This helps diffuse the shame of the blame on the entire community. None of these tactics tends toward healing or bringing peace, however. Restoration to health does not come merely from the elimination of a disease, especially if it has hopelessly metastasized. We need deliverance, salvation, a restoration — the peace the world cannot give.

When we speak of healing and peace from the vision of faith — faith IS a way of seeing! — we think holistically. Not only of the whole person, who is the object of salvation, but even of the community, without which we cannot grow whole as persons. Saint Paul refers frequently to the human body as an image, a type, a model of the Church. We understand from experience how every part of the body matters, interacts with, affects and supports the entire body. That is why we understand our healing and salvation as sacramental.

Sacraments are signs of assurance given by God as actions which connect us to God and one another. Every sacrament not only brings gracious benefits to the individual receiver but the entire community. Notice that every sacrament is sensual: it involves some kind of touch. This signals boldly that the source of healing lies outside of ourselves as individuals, that we are neither alone in our pain and suffering, nor our need for healing — to be made whole — and that we will receive what we need as a gift from God, a grace.

We do not really earn or merit the sacraments, though we seek to approach them with the worthiness of heart that is really nothing more than a willingness and desire to accept God on God’s terms. It means that we do not “use” God as a sort of spiritual vending machine from which we choose the part of the product, the spiritual candy we want, at the price we want to pay. God never gives us less than all that God is and we, out of simple respect and gratitude, want to hold back nothing as our private stash or “sin bin,” which we expect God to have no part of.

I would like to be clear that I do not propose “prayers” alone will cure our social ills or the crimes individuals and groups of people perpetrate on one another. This is part of the tragedy to the human condition that goes back all the way to the Garden of Eden where human pride, goaded by the Evil One’s hatred of God and humanity, first asserted itself against God’s order, God’s love. This is the ancient curse that dogs us throughout history. But there is also a remedy. We do have a prayer — a pray-ER: Jesus Christ to the Father in the Holy Spirit.

The healing, saving news is that God has not cursed us, condemned us to perdition, and the way to heaven, albeit through the trials of this earth, is assured for those who trust in God’s original plan, restored in Jesus Christ. Those who live in Him and in his Spirit, will have eternal life. That life is poured out in the sacramental life of the Church. Deliverance from our emotional, spiritual and social lockdowns comes from the freedom to walk away from fear, addiction and temptation which, inevitably, crouches at our feet but need not master us.

To be perfectly candid, we have all been wounded by this worldwide plague and its progeny. Not all of the wounds are due to the very real and devastating biological effects of an insidious virus. I need not recount the very human limitations in the management of the challenges we have faced. The deprivation of so many forms of personal contact has had real, social and psychological consequences which, again, I do not wish to dramatize. We all know them and painfully so. 

What I want to offer is the reassurance and renewal our Faith offers. The invitation to seek out and enjoy, once again, the full sacramental life of the Church, especially our Eucharist and the sacrament of Peace (Penance), will do more to recharge our spiritual and emotional batteries than any purely medical prescription, homeopathic cocktail or prophylactic puncture piped into our bodies. We are human beings, and as such will only find healing by being perfectly human. We “find” our humanity not in our man caves, she sheds and, God help us, our zoom rooms. Bionics and electronics are creatures of our minds, not our Savior. Jesus alone is. And God creates us to be in love with God and one another, to find our fullness as members of the Body of Christ, “the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23). Welcome to sacramental healing!