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Vol 38 No 4

God–Lover or Judge?

Leslee Sniatynskyj

Cormac Nagle OFM

Brian Lewis

Frank Fletcher MSC

Brendan Byrne SJ

Michael Trainor


Kevin Mark


A reflection on loss:
In the context of Matthew's Passion Narrative


I HAVE ALWAYS been enamoured of Mark’s Passion narrative. Like many people I have spoken to, I have perceived Mark’s rendition of Jesus’ suffering and death, as the most poignant. His raw re-telling of the death experience resonates deeply with us. It speaks to the fears we hold for our own inevitable deaths and the wretchedness of potentially dying alone and abandoned.

It has therefore been something of an epiphany to discover that I subscribe fundamentally to quite another Evangelist’s account of the passion. Though I continue to love the poetry of suffering of Mark and the pared back, deeply haunting account of dying in loneliness and dejection, I have discovered that it is not the account that has best reflected my own experience of loss. To my great surprise, it is Matthew who speaks with greater veracity to my spirit and the authenticity of my experience. This revelation is fresh and new to me, and carries significance for my understanding and living out of life. In this essay, I shall endeavour to trace the implications and ramifications of this discovery for the loss I sustained and its aftermath.

If there was one single factor that defines me, it is an event that transpired ten years ago. In the space of an afternoon I became the antithesis of the orphan: a mother forever bereft of a child. This has become for me an indelible statement of who I am.

We had named him Patrick Augustine, the latter the whimsical addition of my husband, since we both had an affinity for the eponymous saint. On our arrival home from the hospital with him, my neighbour, on hearing his name, laughingly declared that with a name like that, he would become a pope. I like to think that he by-passed all formal channels.

Patrick was a blond child with a college cut and a cheeky smile. He should have been an unremarkable seven-year-old, and yet he was a child quite unlike any other. He was beloved by his Grade One peers. Everyone in his class thought themselves his best friend. He was the star cricketer for his year level, drawing boys naturally to himself for coaching tips. In the area of academics, such as they are at that rudimentary level, he showed promise. He had been advanced a year in Maths. With these myriad gifts and a talent for being loved, one might have imagined a child all too aware of the effect he caused on others. But the opposite was true. He wore a humility that was uncommon in a child so young. People said he had ‘old eyes’, a wisdom beyond his years. With all his childish innocence and self-confidence, he had no compunction in striking up conversations with the most unlikely adults. There was the time in Hahndorf on a Sunday family outing, where we found ourselves having to negotiate a gang of bikers ranged the length of the street. Nervously, I had ushered my brood along quickly, urging no-one to make eye contact. These looked like surly types, looking for trouble. We lost sight of Patrick momentarily. I looked back and saw to my horror that he had lagged behind and was deep in conversation with the largest, toughest-looking rider of all. I sent my husband back for him, while I hyperventilated. It seems that they had been discussing the finer points of the man’s machine. My husband, John, said the biker had looked as if he were having the time of his life. Patrick was about five, then.

For two years after he went away, a steady stream of adults, some of whom I did not know very well, visited our house, sometimes only for fifteen minutes, to convey to us the contents of conversations that they had had with him. The common thread was the indelible impression he had made on these people.

He was the only one of my children who, after his bedtime prayers, would announce cheerfully and without fail every night as I tucked him in:

‘I love you, Mum, but I love God better.’

I entered my passion the day after school was dismissed for the Christmas holidays. I am still living it, all these years later. There was to be a swimming pool party to celebrate the birthday of one of his classmates. Like many of the private school parents, the people hosting the afternoon were wealthy, and lived in a sprawling house and grounds. I remember that they rejected all offers of help for supervision that day. The husband and wife were confident they would manage to keep an eye on their thirty odd charges.

On that drowsy December afternoon, I returned home and lay down for a short nap. A confused, hysterical phone call from the host of the party woke me. It appeared that in keeping with the pirate theme of the party, Patrick had been pushed in fun off a gangplank, and no adult had been there to notice. The hosts were busy organising food for the guests. He was found too late at the bottom of the pool. No-one could tell how long he had been there. The boy with an overabundance of skills and talents had not learned how to swim yet.

I drove myself to the children’s hospital, but in my state of shock, could not remember how to get there. This was ridiculous, since the hospital is a short trip across town from Hyde Park. I pulled over to the side of the road and cried in panic, and tried to train my scrambled thoughts. It was about then that I began my dialogue with God, a conversation that has not ceased. It has become as necessary as breathing. When people undergo crisis events of sufficient magnitude, time becomes a strange, irrelevant construct. I call it entering into God-time. And God space. There is the overpowering sense that all is in

God’s hands and the individual hovers, awaiting the final outcome.

My Gethsemane was that meandering car journey to the hospital, where, alone in God space and God time, I entered into an anguished interchange with God. It was beyond prayer, as I had previously known it. This was more like straight, desperate talk, without all the nice bits. I believe that this may be how Jesus prayed to the Father in the garden. It is a certain way of praying when the chips are truly down. He, too, was frightened of what lay ahead, and everything human in him resisted the prospect of suffering. I begged God to give my baby back, to ‘let the cup pass from me’. I was not ready for the suffering. And I was certainly not ready, at that point, for the ‘yet’ of Jesus: ‘yet not what I want but what you want.’ (26:39) One marvels at how quickly Jesus arrived at the point of submission to God’s will for him. He did not produce the ‘yet’ at the culmination of the three bouts of solitary prayer, but in the first. This is in keeping with the Matthean ‘obedient Jesus, whose entire life is marked by integrity’ (Donald Senior, The Passion of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, p.29). He did not permit himself the indulgence of challenging God’s will. Everything in his ministry pointed to the fulfilment of the Father’s will. The cross would be the culminating point of that obedience.

By contrast, I was definitely struggling for that perfect obedience. First there would be a tussle of wills, but within a short time God would prevail. From somewhere far away, an inner voice told me firmly: ‘This time I mean it.’ The mind is a strange thing: I was incapable of finding the direct route to the hospital, but all of a sudden I knew with the greatest clarity to what this oblique statement was referring. I had not thought about it in years. One has no time to dwell on events that have turned out well, when raising four children. At the age of about three months, Patrick had contracted a form of meningitis. For a few days, his fate had hung in the balance. Over that time, John and I made the decision that whatever he was like at the end of it, we would love and accept him. If the illness proved to be bacterial, he would be rendered completely vegetative. In that flash on the road now, I understood that that episode had been a sort of a dry run. Perhaps our prayers had persuaded God to wait a little longer. Perhaps the student had not yet been ready for the teacher. Now it was time.

Still I pleaded. The same inner voice told me to look clearly ahead at ‘the word’. In my daze, I became aware that at the traffic lights on Pulteney Street, a white van had pulled up in front of me. Emblazoned on the back of its doors was the name of an electrical firm, I have learned since. Its title: ‘Dead Short’. Look at the first word, the voice urged me. I knew with certainty then that my boy was gone from me. All that now remained was for me to agree to hand him over.

I am fully aware how this last reads, and the reader would not be the first to discount it as the over-imaginative interpretations of a grieving mother, casting about wildly for meaning. However, there are two things of which I am certain. When in shock, the cognitive mind is incapable of rational thought, of making clever linkages between disconnected events. The very nature of shock short-circuits most thought processes. Yet here I was having a distressing argument with a voice extraneous to me. The other thing I am convinced about is that perceptions lived out in crisis moments are completely authentic in nature. There are some moments in life so pivotal, so deeply sacred, that we all know instinctively not to embellish or lend dramatic colour to them.

If I had had the wherewithal, I might at this point have prayed, as did Jesus did, the second time:

‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.’(26:42)

As it is, I said pretty much the same thing to the Father, there at the stoplights. All right then, I said, have it your way. It may have been ungracious, but it was still a moment of complete acceptance of God’s will. I knew that I had acceded to the hardest thing God would ever ask of me. Don’t You forget it, I told God through a blur of tears.

As I pore over Matthew’s account, looking for connectors with my story, I see how betrayal set in motion both passions. There is deep pain in Jesus’ brief address to Judas: ‘Friend, do what it is you have to do.’ (26:50) The irony of the title. ‘friend’, does not pass unnoticed. Jesus’ close companion was acting antithetically to what a true friend should do. A friend cherishes and protects. My friend, and Patrick’s friend, were also our undoing. But unlike Jesus, my trust in others died the day of Patrick. It is only now that I am slowly beginning to make headway in that direction. The opposite of trust is fear. For a very long time I have lived fearful of the world, especially when it came to my other children.

If Gethsemane were the dreaded anticipation of what was to come, the hospital was the scene of the first part of our passion. John’s and my heart were flayed by the sight of our beloved son, hooked up to a machine that breathed for him. We were told we could only wait and see. I already knew with a quiet certainty that there would be no miracle. On some deeper level, I was at peace with this. But I discovered that the two parts of us—the spirit and the flesh—can co-exist at the same time, making decisions independently of each other, and not interacting with the other at all. The mutually exclusive stances seem extremely reasonable and do not impinge on each other. While I had quickly reached a point of acceptance on a spiritual level, the human mother aspect of me was irrepressible. My interior dialogue with God went along the lines of: ‘I know this is what You said, but You can still change Your mind, if You want.’ To that end, I kept up the prayers in confidence. I had badgered God once before, and it had worked. I have always been a great believer in the power of ‘bull-dozing’ Heaven for the things that mattered. This was not the struggle between the flesh and the spirit, of which Paul speaks. There was absolutely nothing untoward about either of my attitudes. The human experience, the tears, the unmitigated pleading, seemed to sit very comfortably alongside my preparedness to accept God’s decision.

I knew it looked bad. Patrick’s brain stem, the rudimentary part that controls basic reflexes, was the only bit of him that was still functioning. He could not speak or hear. His limbs twitched involuntarily. My boy was gone. But the cruellest blow was yet to come: John and I were summoned to a meeting with the consulting doctor, a man uncomfortable with wild grief. He told us with blunt harshness that we had to make a decision. At some point the machine would have to be switched off. There was nothing more to be done. He suggested some time that next afternoon would be a good idea. With that, he briskly left the meeting room.

For years I carried the guilt of having killed my son. There are some things so unnatural that no parent should have to endure them. No number of priest friends could bring me comfort with reminders of the Church directive that a person need not be kept alive by ‘extraordinary means’. I knew it. I taught the stuff, and I had always been very clear with my students that there is no such thing as ‘passive euthanasia’. But tell it to someone who has not had to name the hour when their child will die.

Over the next day, family gathered to say good-bye to our boy. I find it amusing now how John’s and my displays of raw grief kept them all confined to the doorway to the hospital room. No-one dared enter the sacred space, not with two wild people uttering deep groans like mortally wounded primeval creatures. Our priest, to his credit, never left the room. My enduring memory is of a good man of God, frightened by the spectacle of a savage grief that he could not understand, yet willing himself to stay with us. He kept vigil safely away from us along a wall. He had too much humanity and good sense to try and comfort us. These people, now that I think about it, were the embodiment of the presence of God amid suffering. In essence, we were cut off from every living creature, and yet we were surrounded by love and shared pain. Was this not the experience of the Matthean Jesus? In his dying he is utterly alone, the last person left on earth. He cannot reach God through his misery, but God cannot reach him either. Through it all, though, he is dimly aware that God is all the same standing in the doorway, weeping with him. Perhaps it is the nature of acute suffering that we do not have the ability to be reached.

Like the drowning man, we flail and thresh about, sabotaging all rescue.

I removed myself sometimes from Patrick’s bed to go outside. It is hard to wait and watch for death when your mind has not yet absorbed that there is even a crisis. I remember observing a bus trundling along the street, and wondering idly if I should throw myself in front of it. More often though, in those vigils outside, away from the physical reality, I found myself a tower of stillness. I experienced the peculiar, but unmistakeable sensation of Heaven coming down to my physical level, like a band of cloud hovering just over me. If I reached up, I could touch it. Holiness was all around me, upholding me. God and I walked like physical companions. John did not experience any of this. He was floundering badly. I knew then that my job would be to sustain my family through this, and that the quiet strength that came in those moments outside, would carry me, and us.

At the appointed hour the next day, the machine was switched off. No-one knew how long the dying process would take. I was allowed to scoop my child in my arms and hold him to me in an armchair. I was determined he would die in my arms. After a few hours, I transferred him to his bed, and John and I lay down either side of him, just as we used to do at home. Moments before he breathed his last, a miracle occurred. The nursing staff said it was impossible. They had never seen anything like it before. The vocal chords were gone, as were the tear ducts. The child with no physical function left was given his voice back, and he farewelled us in a long protracted cry. My mother exclaimed in amazement:

‘He’s calling to you!’

A tear had formed at the corner of one of his eyes. Perhaps he was weeping for us. All along, I had kept to the quiet assurance that the outcome would be exactly as God intended. I was clear that I had surrendered to God’s will, but even so I was convinced that God had right up to the last moment to choose to swing things our way. On the one hand there was acceptance, on the other, the hope that things would be turned around. When Patrick’s last breath came, I knew the decision was final. I had not been bargaining with God, as I have since read is one of the stages of grief. There was nothing I could offer in a fair swap. I was quite clear about the fact that God was running the show, but I had also believed in the power of persuasion. I wonder now, having studied the Passion narratives, whether Jesus too entertained this kind of hope to the last. At any moment, he might be bidden to come down from the cross. He had done the dying, but did he need to be dead?

One of the lessons that I believe God seeks to impart to me is to trust in God. This has been the hardest lesson of all. I could reach acceptance of God’s will with relative alacrity. Even that was a grace. I am a person who can produce heroic behaviour in crises. Perhaps most of us have that ability. I have found it a totally different proposition, though, to continue to live in trust, to say ‘yes’ to the daily cross of life without my son. Perhaps this, the aftermath, has become the real passion. The two days in hospital were surreal and somehow larger than life. I was buoyed incessantly by a divine presence. I felt ten feet tall. Now there is a ‘darkness over my land’ that I fight daily. In God’s wisdom, I am no longer granted spiritual dramatics to sustain me. Many are the times that I cry out against the sense of having been cut off from the rest of humanity. Sorrow is fundamentally a lonely business.
When I look back over the ten years, I see that through my darkest moments I have been sustained by the invisible presence of God, as I believe Jesus was, through the anguish and suffering on the cross. He could not feel God’s presence, but faith told him God was there. Though I have felt utterly alone and despondent, there are times when I can rally and consciously recall that this is only a limited human perception. There is the dim reminder, at times, of Jesus’ parting words of comfort to the disciples:

‘…remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (28:20)

God’s abiding presence in my life is the thing that has kept me alive for ten years. I can think of no greater private proof for the existence of God than that.

When I examine Matthew’s closing gospel passage, I see my future more clearly. Jesus does not encourage his disciples to mourn his loss. There is a job to be done. He gives them a firm mandate for what to do with the rest of their lives: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’ (28:19-20) This is a call to action, to roll up one’s sleeves and work, and live. One cannot die until one’s purpose has been accomplished. This tallies perfectly with the little inner voice that still speaks to me, often telling me things I don’t want to hear. Driving to school one day recently, I was giving myself a pep talk: I must survive, I told myself. A stern interior voice interjected: No. You must do more than that. You must flourish. And be useful.

There is no way we can remove the sense of abandonment that Matthew’s Jesus feels on the cross. That is the nature of suffering. Nor, however, can we delete the strong sense of God’s invisible presence through his hour of torment. It is in this that Matthew diverges from Mark. The notion of God’s abiding presence is such a joyous message of hope for people who struggle to get through every day. The clear directive about how to fill one’s days appeals to the no-nonsense part of my personality. Jesus clearly says: there is a job to get done, so do it. I recall an evocative line from a movie I saw once: get busy living or get busy dying. The choices are as simple as that. I am slowly discovering the joy of life all over again. God’s ways are so peculiar: your heart is permitted to be ripped out, in order to replace it with something altogether new and different. If we allow it, God will work to de-construct and re-fashion us according to God’s will. I never did blame God for what happened to Patrick. I do not believe that God was the cause of the events of that day. Human error was at fault, but for whatever reason, God chose not to intervene. I have to accept that. A few months later, a child was pulled from his pusher which had been submerged in the River Torrens for a full ten minutes. He recovered completely. I have to live with that, too, and not call it unfair.

If there is one thing all this business has taught me, it is about the constant, faithful companionship of God. Quite simply, God never leaves us. And in a quiet voice, he urges us on to an ever-deepening relationship. This is, too, the message of Matthew’s Gospel, the only one to name Jesus as ‘Emmanuel, which means, ‘God is with us” (1:23), the God who cannot bear to leave the side of humanity. In his dying, Jesus does not question God’s existence, but God’s silence.

Matthew’s dying Jesus embraces his passion in an active way. He is more in control of his choices than the Markan equivalent. He gives up his spirit voluntarily, rather than be victim to the tortured expiring that we see in Mark. As opposed to the anguished death shout that we read of in the latter, the Matthean Jesus ‘cries up’ (v46). The very instance of his death is a prayer moment. Even in those last minutes of suffering human consciousness, he remains in touch intimately with God. This in itself speaks to the sufferer today. In embracing the cross, there is no guarantee that the pain will diminish, but there is the sense of not being a victim buffeted by fate. We retain the powerful impression that God is still in charge of the universe. Thus, even at our lowest ebb, there is still empowerment. Suffering is part of discipleship, and we are called to carry our own cross, much like the anthropos, Simon of Cyrene. (27:32). When we baulk at suffering, Jesus does not berate us for our lack of faith, but exhorts us to hold fast through the testing time. We are not to be broken by the suffering. He reminds us that ‘all authority in heaven and on earth have been given to [him].’ (28:18) Regardless of how grim things may look, there comes eventually the Sunday of resurrection.

After the funeral, my sister said to me:

‘You’ve always called him Pax, haven’t you? Do you know what it means?’

I looked at her stupidly. And then understanding broke through. How could I not have realised before? I was a Latin teacher for goodness sake. Patrick. Pax. The peace-maker, the bringer of peace to hearts. Here was my inspiration and the thing I would search for the rest of my life. Pax is what we all seek, and what the Matthean Jesus promises. To dwell in the heart of God, to lose the fear of the visitors to the empty tomb, is to plumb the deepest source of pax.

Leslee teaches at St Ignatius’ College, Adelaide. She is married with four children, and studies theology at the Adelaide College of Divinity.