On the four previous Sundays of August we have considered the power of Jesus. That power is his love. We have seen how he exercises it over our hungers (feeding of the thousands, curing the sick, compassion for the harassed and dejected), fears (rescuing Peter from sinking into the sea) and death (the Assumption of Our Lady) and also in his Church (He builds his Church on Peter). On this fifth and last Sunday of August the Gospel now tells of the power of his love in and over sufferings. In fact, it is in his own sufferings for us and with us that we experience the power of his love in a most special and consoling way.
But first, there is Peter again. Peter speaks for all of us when he wants Jesus to be spared suffering and death. You want anyone you love not to suffer or even die, if that were possible. But suffering is a universal fact of life, as is death. While there is nothing we can do to prevent death, but only delay it, we can and must do everything possible to prevent, treat and heal suffering. Jesus himself dedicates huge amounts of time and energy to doing just that in his public ministry. And anyone with a modicum of compassion and humanity will try to do the same. As for death, Jesus does not prevent it: rather, through it, he delivers himself and us out the other side of it. Mortality can only be removed from us by dying. It’s like sweating out a cold. Because of Jesus, death is no longer the final end, but what we must experience if we are to rise to immortality.
Jesus came to destroy the cause of suffering and death, sin. His public healing ministry among people only touched the surface, but it was a sign of the true and lasting healing he intended to bring to humanity and to creation. To do that in a way that would both work and be truly meaningful for us, he chose to enter into the fullest depth and extent of our sin, suffering and death. He did not want to heal us from the outside, but to enter fully into our condition. His compassion for us and his solidarity with us would thus make it easier for us to believe in him, and the power of his innocent love would transform our suffering and destroy our death from the inside.
The suffering of Jesus was manifold. The physical side of it is what first strikes us. Documentaries and films across the decades have provided often graphic descriptions especially of his crucifixion. Was his physical suffering greater than that of many another human being? Possibly and even probably not. History is replete with the horror of man’s gruesome inhumanity to man, more gruesome even than crucifixion.
The worst sufferings of the human being are not physical, and I would suggest that the same is true of Jesus. He would have had immense emotional and psychological suffering, even before his passion: being misunderstood, rejected and the object of calumny; being betrayed and denied; bearing the brunt of universal opprobrium from his own people; being cut off from life at an early age. The greatest suffering would be moral and spiritual: the apparent failure of his mission and the ingratitude for all the good he had done; facing death while knowing himself to be the resurrection and the life; carrying in his soul the entire weight of the guilt of every single sin of every human being from Adam to the last person to come into this world while knowing he was as innocent as a lamb; enduring the injustice and humiliation of his condemnation; battling the temptations of Satan to give up; experiencing the crowning and crushing desolation on the Cross of abandonment by the Father.
So, if we take these sufferings (and I’m sure that’s not all of them) and combine them with the atrocious physical sufferings he underwent, there is no question that his suffering was, is and always will be unparalleled. These many forms of suffering mean that he knows from the inside the hight, depth and breadth of any and every human suffering. For that reason, we can turn to him not as someone observing us suffer from a comfortable outside, but as one who understands and shares with us from the inside what we are going through – even more than we do ourselves. It’s not in fact too much to say that when I am suffering, Jesus is suffering it, too, and more intensely than me since he grasps more clearly and fully the whole import and ramifications of my suffering. There is nothing that I will ever suffer that he will not suffer with me. This is one of the great, consoling truths of Christian baptism: our union with him is not only in grace and prayer, in truth and in holiness, but also in suffering and in dying – and therefore in rising.
His union in suffering with us is one of the most comforting displays of the power of Jesus’ love in action. And here we have the answer to the question of why he had to save us by suffering and dying. A loving God never wanted us to sin, suffer or die, but once we had freely chosen that road, a loving God could do nothing other than join us on it. God as the God who has actually and factually and historically revealed himself to us in Jesus would never have saved us by a cold decree from on high. Rather, because he is compassion and love, he makes himself one with us, taking onto himself the very guilt of the sins we have each and all committed as if he alone had committed them all, taking into himself all our sufferings and death, and sharing with us through his victory over death his own freedom from sin, suffering and death. That’s what St. Paul means with those incredible, and almost shocking words: God the Father made Jesus “into sin” so that in Jesus we would become the righteousness of God.
This is why Jesus is so brutal and even wounding with Peter. He hears in Peter’s voice no longer the voice of the Father, as when Peter professed his faith in Jesus, but the voice of Satan, trying to deflect him from his destiny. To Peter and the other apostles, the proposed destiny of Jesus seemed like a disaster, looked like annihilation, but in reality it was the destiny of the compassionate love of the Redeemer for every single human being on this earth who would sin, suffer and die. Peter wanted an earthly power for Jesus, as did Satan during the temptations in the desert. But the only power Jesus wanted on earth was the power of love, of compassion, of solidarity with the weak, poor and outcast sinner in his guilt, suffering and mortality. He came, not for the self-righteous, but for those such as the woman at the well, Zacchaeus the tax collector, the prodigal son, the woman caught in adultery, the good thief and, yes, for poor Peter as he cried his eyes out in bitterness for denying the man he had professed to be the Christ.
The only and final answer to the question of suffering in the world is the Crucified Christ. Sin, suffering and death are of themselves absurd. Even to ask why they exist is itself absurd, because the question presupposes there is a reason, and absurdity has no reason. It is sin which was the origin of that absurdity; death was its aim. Between sin and death the path is suffering. By his death, Jesus destroys sin and death, and by his suffering out of compassionate love he transforms our suffering – if we want it – into a vehicle of that love. Our suffering is the consequence of sin in the world; the suffering of Jesus was born out of pure love. His suffering wasn’t something closed in on itself, or which closed him in on himself. He suffered so as to be able to bring his love into our suffering and so that, in our suffering, we could enter into his suffering by loving him in return. For the one who has faith, a communion of suffering between us and Jesus is possible, and so, too, therefore is a communion of compassionate love.
The goal of this compassionate love and suffering can never be suffering for its own sake. Christ wants our healing, even in this life, to the degree that that is possible. Our doctors, surgeons and nurses and all other health-care workers in the mental and physical sectors are like God’s fingertips, seeking to heal us. But, of course, healing is not always possible during our lives and, in the end, death takes us from this life. So, Jesus has his eye neither on suffering for its own sake nor on a healing that is merely passing. His eye is on our eternal healing, on victory over death, on resurrection. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that, for the joy which lay in the future, Jesus willingly endured the ignominy of the Cross. Suffering is ignominious, it degrades our true nature and is an insult born in hell to the creative power of God. But that same creative power has taken suffering by the throat, as it were, and forced it into the service of compassionate love. And once its time is up, suffering in all its forms will be gone and the compassionate love which made it tolerable will be transformed into eternal glory.
Whatever you are suffering and whenever you suffer it, do all you can to seek its healing and resolution with the proper means available. It is Christ’s will that we use all the legitimate means at our disposal to fight all and any suffering. But if it nevertheless remains, and as long as it remains, don’t waste the opportunity your suffering gives you to open out your heart to Christ and to let him enter into your suffering to make it his own. He stands at the door your suffering provides and knocks. If you open the door, he will enter and suffer with you, which is the very meaning of the word compassion. In suffering with you, he therefore also suffers for you and you for him, and he shares with you the power of his eternal love. Who knows, it may well be that in that very co-suffering with him that he will bring a deeper healing to your heart, soul and conscience, one perhaps that you did not even know you needed. To suffer in this way with Jesus on the road to Jerusalem and to Calvary, is to walk the path of salvation for yourself and, in union with Jesus, for others you know and love. Your suffering can become the means of someone else’s salvation. To the extent that you let this happen, you will become more like Christ himself, more like Our Lady, who walked that road with him.
For as long as you suffer, and whether it is eventually healed or not, try in faith to invite Jesus in. Maybe he is the Jesus of Gethsemane; maybe he is the Jesus bound with chains; maybe he is the Jesus whipped or stripped; maybe he is the Jesus crying out in despair on the Cross; maybe he shows you his hands and side. However you imagine him, give him free entry. Maybe you have a chronic physical illness: then know that he lives that illness with you and invites you to share with him the name of the person or people for whom you want to offer your suffering. It might be for a son or daughter who has gone off the rails; it might be for the nephew who is an addict. Maybe you suffer from a chronic mental illness like anxiety or depression: then offer the darkness of it for that brother who has lost his faith in God, or for that grandson whose father or mother abandoned him, or for that relative or friend who had an abortion. Maybe you have been given only a few months to live and are gripped by fear or regret: well, offer that suffering to Jesus for the forgiveness and cleansing of the sins of your youth which you may never yet have confessed and have repressed for a life-time like a dead-weight in the bottom of your heart.
All forms of suffering can become the doorway to profound union with Christ, profound healing of mind, heart and soul, and can even bring the light of hope for a new and peaceful future. To live your suffering with Christ prevents bitterness and bad-tempered resentment and anger from taking hold and souring your soul. He transforms it with the same power of love with which he transforms bread and wine into Himself.
The power of Christ over our hungers, fears and death, and even the exercise of his power within the Church, is the same power of love shown with unique sublimity over and in our sufferings. So let’s listen once again, but with loving and docile hearts, to the invitation to follow him which Jesus gives us in the Gospel, “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.” The Cross is a difficult place to be, but in fact there is no better place to be.