Author Paulo Coelho created the story of a young woman named Athena. She dropped out of college at age nineteen to get married and have a baby. Then her husband left her when the baby was still young.
One Sunday the local Catholic priest, who was her friend, watched as she walked toward him to receive communion, and his heart was filled with dread. Athena stood in front of the priest with her eyes closed and mouth open. She was hungry for the grace given to her in Christ’s body. But he did not give it.
The young woman opened her eyes, confused. The priest tried to tell her in hushed tones that they would talk about it later, but she would not be turned away. She persisted until she received an answer. “Athena, the Church forbids divorced people from receiving the sacrament. You signed your divorce papers this week. We’ll talk later.”
She stood there, devastated, numb. People began to step around her, an obstacle in their path.
Naomi Zacharias, who retells this story in her book The Scent of Water: Grace for Every Kind of Broken, imagines people saying, “Don’t you know that God hates divorce?” and Athena answering, “I know. So do I. Possibly even more than you.” It had been so hard for her to come to church that day. And now, driving a knife into her already anguished heart, the church says she is no longer worthy to come to Christ.
As the priest finished giving the sacrament, he slowly stepped back to the altar. Athena was still standing where he had left her. Then she cried out against those who had not listened to the words of Christ but transformed his message into a stone building: “Christ said, ‘Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ Well, I’m heavy laden, and they won’t let me come to him.” She turned and left the church, tears streaming down her face, her baby crying.
Years later the priest cannot forget her face, the forlorn look in her eyes, and the poignancy of those words of Christ. He now says, “I like to imagine that when she left the church, Athena met Jesus. Weeping and confused, she would have thrown herself into his arms.” And surely Jesus took her broken heart and held it carefully, gently.
It comes to me that this is what we as a church are to do: speak the truth about sin, making clear the direction toward which the wisdom of God nudges us sinners; and welcome with great patience and gracious compassion any sinner who wants to come to Jesus.
Doing both is hard. But we must try with all our heart.