When the Second Person of the Trinity took on human nature, he entered into a suffering and broken world brought about the sinfulness of Adam, Eve and all mankind. He did so in order to show us the infinite depths of the Father’s love, to heal us and raise us up to newness of life through the sacraments he instituted. He also did so with the purpose of giving meaning to the sufferings we endure.
Jesus, that is, God himself, did not exempt himself from entering into the hell of human suffering. He humbled himself to be rejected by the innkeeper, to be born in a barn full of animals and placed in the feeding trough of those animals.
At the presentation in the Temple, Simeon prophesies suffering: “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted and you yourself (Mary) a sword will pierce…” (Luke 2:34-35).
In his infancy, Jesus had to rely of Joseph to flee from the tyrannical King Herod, who sought to slaughter the newborn king of the Jews.
Throughout his public ministry, he suffered on many occasions. He suffered from temptation, rejection, scorn, ridicule – even from those within his own circle of friends. He suffered the sorrow of losing his friend Lazarus. He suffered at the unjust arrest, imprisonment and murder of his cousin, John the Baptist. He suffered betrayal by Judas and denial by Peter.
Throughout his public ministry, he spoke of his forthcoming suffering: “The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected…and be killed and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:22).
And again: “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem and everything written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be handed over to the Gentiles and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon; and after they have scourged him they will kill him, but on the third day he will rise” (Luke 18:31-33).
However, Jesus healed and raised people from the dead to show that suffering and death will not have the last word, so much so that St. Paul will one day say, “Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:54-55).
He also sent out the Twelve, and then the 70, to do the same. He set it up so that his love and mercy could be extended through the church he established.
Jesus also taught us that suffering is part of the demands of discipleship. “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
“Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 15:27).
“…Whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:38).
The definitive suffering of Christ began in the upper room and ended on Calvary.
If we want to find the meaning of suffering, we should only look upon the cross. The cross is where we are shown in a perfect way how much God loves us. He loves us with a self-sacrificial, suffering love.
In our own suffering, Christ allows us to share in the deepest sign of his love. He has infused suffering with divine meaning, not human meaninglessness. Human suffering is thus redeemed. Through our suffering, we participate in the sacrifice of Christ, which brings about our salvation and the salvation of others. And it is only through the cross that we are led to the resurrection, there is no Easter Sunday without Good Friday.
So, why do people suffer? Suffering can be a result of sin. Of this there is no doubt. Suffering can also serve as a way of testing and purification. Jesus was tested in the desert while he fasted. He was also tested through suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane, so much so that he “began to feel sorrow and distress” and “he was in such agony and he prayed so fervently that his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground” (Matthew 26:37, Luke 22:44).
During this agony, he says, “Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). It is a test that will help us see if we will follow God only in good times, but also in bad times. In the midst of the test of suffering, will we shout out with a loud cry, “My will be done,” or “Thy will be done!”
We also suffer so that a space may be created to show love – of God and of neighbor. The suffering of others provides opportunities to demonstrate our love, the primary scriptural example being the Good Samaritan (cf. Luke 10:29-37).
Typical responses to the suffering of others might be, “I will pray for you.” That is love. “I will make a meal and bring it over.” That is love. “I will come visit you in the hospital.” That is love. “I will call a priest to give you the sacrament of anointing of the sick.” That is love.
We should also strive to unite our sufferings to Christ, placing ourselves at the foot of the cross with Mary and John, where the mystery of divine love is most manifest. We should also unite ourselves to Christ through reception of the sacrament of anointing of the sick.
In the next article, I will write more about how Christ extends his mercy and love to us in this glorious sacrament. However, we can also, in a profound way, unite our suffering to Christ in the Mass. Where his body and blood is given for us, may we, too, surrender our body and blood to him in the sacrifice of the Mass.