This is the sixth week of a Lenten series. This week we focus on suffering.
By: Rev. Paul Scalia
We are now in the last days of Lent. The readings at Mass focus more and more on the persecution of our Lord, the preface is that of the Holy Cross. Next week, we walk with Him in His suffering. We must not do so as innocent bystanders. First of all, because we are not innocent. Second, because we cannot merely stand by. We are meant to share His suffering with Him. This means accompanying Him not as observers but as true companions – which requires a better understanding of suffering itself.
Mercy requires suffering. The mercy that draws near to those in need – close to what Mother Teresa called “the distressing disguise of the poor” – that mercy must be willing to suffer. If we are not willing to suffer, then we cannot possibly accompany those who do. Our charitable deeds will be distant, remote, and removed from any real human contact. They will lack the genuine human warmth that should accompany those who suffer. To serve those in need means to be with them in suffering, not merely to throw money at the problem or delegate a government department to do it.
By the Incarnation, God Himself – in His extravagant mercy – has drawn near to us in our suffering. He is not far off or remote. He is with us in our suffering. More to the point, in His Passion He takes on Himself every kind of human suffering – physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual. We can never claim that God knows nothing about our suffering. He is with us in the midst of it.
Likewise, the mercy of forgiveness requires suffering. That most demanding petition of The Lord’s Prayer is sometimes translated as “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” The concept of a debt is very useful. When someone offends or hurts us, then in justice something is due to us. That person owes us something in order to set things straight. Thus, to forgive means to cancel the debt – and therefore to take a loss.
So the question is, how much of a debt are we willing to forgive? What is our limit? Most of us would forgive a debt of one dollar, five, maybe even 10. How much higher can we go? To follow Christ means not to set a limit on debt forgiveness. We owe Him the greatest debt imaginable – our very lives. He “took a loss” by paying the debt Himself. If we follow Him, then, we cannot set a limit on the debt we will forgive.
Further, everyone suffers. Not suffering is not an option in this fallen world, this vale of tears. Obviously, none of us wants to suffer. But neither can we run from or deny it. People commit the most horrendous acts precisely in an attempt to avoid suffering. The suffering involved in a difficult pregnancy is “relieved” by an abortion. The suffering of the terminally ill (or, more accurately, the suffering of those looking on) is “solved” by euthanasia. It is this kind of flight from suffering that prompted Flannery O’Connor to say, “Tenderness leads to the gas chamber.” A too tender view of things, one that balks at suffering, results in merciless flights from it – tenderly killing the innocent to relieve suffering.
But suffering is not enough. Everyone suffers; not everyone sacrifices. To suffer is simply to experience some loss or lack, be it great or small. To sacrifice (sacer+facere – “to make sacred”) means to take the suffering in hand and offer it to the Lord. When that happens, then our suffering suddenly has meaning and dignity it did not possess before. It is then united with our Lord Himself, Who suffered for our sake.
Jesus makes – and enables – this transition from suffering to sacrifice. He does not merely suffer. His Passion is not passive. He has the power to lay down His life, and the power to take it up again (cf. Jn 10:18). From the moment of His arrest to His last dying breath, He is the one in control. He takes the suffering – the shame, betrayal, beating, scourging, mockery, and crucifixion – He takes it all in hand and offers it to the Father. He willingly embraces suffering – My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will (Mt 26:39) – and offers it to His Father – Father, into your hands I commend my spirit (Lk 23:46). He does not lose His life but gives it.
Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps (1 Pt 2:24). In our suffering, we ought to follow His example. The choice is ours. We can merely experience suffering – and, as is likely, gripe and grouse about the burdens we bear. Or we can make that suffering a pleasing sacrifice by taking it in hand and offering it in union with Christ.