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1st Sunday of Lent (B), Service of the Word, 21.02.21: The suffering of Christ

To ponder the sufferings of Jesus Christ is to ponder the encounter between the mystery of iniquity and the mystery of divine love. Evil is a mystery because it overwhelms our capacity to understand it. Divine love is even more of a mystery because it both grasps and overwhelms evil. To contemplate the loving, suffering Jesus is therefore to contemplate the fusion between creative love and destructive hate, not to any limited degree but to its ultimate extreme. From that fusion there arises redemption and resurrection. And, whereas hatred finds self-satisfaction in destroying, love in victory does not share even minimally in such gloating. Love neither hates nor destroys nor rejoices pridefully over the defeat of anything. Its victory only destroys in the sense that it renews and revives what was perishing. It restores love where it was wounded or lost. It heals hatred. It turns what was as red as crimson to be as white as snow. For neither suffering nor iniquity nor death has any real presence. They are all absence. Love wins them back to presence, by transforming suffering into eternal wholeness, iniquity into eternal love and death into eternal life.


The love of God chose, not to obliterate, but to redeem. Love never throws away, but repairs and makes new once more with a newness even greater than before. Deformed by sin, man is not annihilated by love, but reformed by it to a dignity even higher than before. And love does this not from a cold or clinical distance, but from the inside. We are not redeemed by an excarnate God, but by the incarnate One. Love does not stand aloof from the physical, moral and spiritual suffering of humanity, but inserts, injects, introduces itself into it. Ours were the bruises and sicknesses he carried – all of them; ours were the iniquities he bore – all of them. And he bore them in truth, not metaphorically speaking, not “as if” but in fact. There is not one single suffering, however mild or crushing, of one single human being, however great or small, that knows the absence of Christ. For they are all present to and in him; they are in fact all his sufferings. They all belong on his Cross, the Cross, the only Cross. And that is only because Love has claimed them for Himself. He is present to every suffering; every suffering is present to Him.


Jesus said with full awareness on his journey to Jerusalem that he would “suffer grievously.” I looked up “” for synonyms of “grievous”, and it gave 47 adjectives ranging from “egregious” at one end of the scale to “sad” on the other. The truth is that all 47 adjectives and probably many more are applicable to the suffering of Christ. And if we distinguish the kinds of suffering he endured for us into physical, emotional, psychological, moral and spiritual, the descriptions or definitions become exponential, incalculable. Of course, the reality is that the suffering of Christ transcends all qualification by human standards alone, since in Him are combined both the divine and human suffering. I often think that what we did to the Nazarene on Calvary is merely the this-worldly reflection of the atrociousness of the suffering somehow undergone by the Holy Trinity when our first parents “crucified” it on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. How the heart of God was pierced then by the lance of Eve’s hand as she reached out and took from the tree!


Like death, suffering finds its origin in the sin of mankind. All disorder in creation and in the human condition can be traced back to man’s free decision to break harmony with God. That break ricochets throughout creation in all its facets and dimensions. But it is humanity itself which endures the self-inflicted consequences of disobedience to God. Suffering is not a curse added by God to the sinful human condition, but comes from it as puss from an infection. As the bible tells us, the tragedy of suffering is most keenly felt when it afflicts even the just person who has committed little or no sin that would deserve suffering. Innocent suffering haunts the history of humanity and the story of Job shows how we rebel against it, how we want to call God to account to explain himself. Yet, what explanation could God give other than to point back to the sin of our first parents in which we are all implicated?


God offers Job no explanation. Instead, he offers redemption. In the mysterious figure of the Suffering Servant whom we meet in the prophet Isaiah, there appears the foretelling of the innocent One who would let himself be taken for a sinner, carrying everyone’s faults on himself while praying all the time for sinners. Christ takes no pleasure in the suffering of all kinds which he encounters in his ministry. On the contrary, he relieves it, he heals it, he is moved with divine and human compassion for the sick, the possessed and the sinner. Repeatedly he reminds his disciples that he himself must suffer. It is his destiny, the will of the Father. And, as the letter to the Hebrews tells us, although He was Son, Jesus learnt obedience through suffering and thus became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.


It is in this obedience of Christ that the suffering of the world and of history finds its healing. Jesus absorbs the suffering caused by Adam’s disobedience and heals it through his own obedience. As Adam crashed out of Eden among thorns, labour, sweat and nakedness, Jesus returns us to Paradise by the same way Adam came. There would be something cruel and massively disrespectful of human suffering if God had simply airbrushed it out of history. And so, he did not do that. He did not wipe Adam’s catastrophic disobedience away by the raising of an eyebrow. He took it seriously, because that’s what the Lord does with us human beings. He takes us seriously. He respects us, more than we do ourselves. He accepts the results of our sinful free choices even when they break his heart because he knows they will in the end break us. But he does not accept them passively, throwing up his hands and saying, “o, well!” On the contrary, he actively engages with us to see what he can do to get us out of the mess we are in whilst at the same time respecting the outcome of our actions. And that is just another way of speaking of his Fatherly love for us. He respects our freedom, he sees what we have chosen, he sees with grieving heart the damage we do to ourselves and one another and he comes to our aid and says, “Ok, let’s see now what we can do to get you back on your feet.”


But he does not do it without us. He makes it possible for us to recover, and sets out the path before us. But we have to want it. And so, Christ takes our sins and sufferings on himself, in faithful love and obedience to the Father and in compassionate love for us. In the atrocity of his passion and death he submits all sin, suffering and death to the redemptive love of God. His cross makes the forgiveness of sin possible for those who ask in faith. His cross makes it possible for us to suffer now not only as the effect of sin but in union with his love. His cross makes it possible for mortal man to come through death and into life eternal.


Just as, for those who believe in him, he forgives their sins without denying the fact that those sins have been committed; just as he delivers us, not from dying, but out of death; so, for those who suffer in obedient and loving union with him, he heals them not necessarily always from their suffering but most certainly through their suffering. For those who accept that the grace of baptism means being crucified with Christ, the sufferings they experience in their own person are, in fact, no longer their own sufferings, but Christ’s. It is Christ who now owns their suffering and who in the union of love and obedience to the Father offers those sufferings for the healing of humanity.


But what of Jesus’ own experience of suffering? Something in us might still be inclined to doubt that he truly did suffer, given his divine nature. The Church has always taught that Jesus truly did suffer because he was true man, and that his suffering was not in some way mitigated or interfered with by his divine nature. He could not have redeemed suffering and made it redemptive if he did not truly assume it in his humanity. Likewise, he could not have truly destroyed death if he did not truly die. It is therefore the faith of the Church that Jesus Christ truly did suffer and die because he truly assumed our human nature. Indeed, it is only through his humanity that we receive the remedies of his divinity.


Saint Paul tells us that the suffering and death of Jesus were an act of consummate humility on Jesus’ part. That humility was first shown by his becoming man. Paul tells us that Jesus “emptied himself” by becoming man. You could say that he suffered the temporary laying aside of his divine glory. It was this act of humility in the incarnation which was the doorway to the rest of his suffering. And that suffering was not limited to the Passion itself, even if it is in the Passion that all his suffering comes to its climax.


We don’t know what suffering he endured in the hidden life, although we do know that Simeon told Mary that the child was destined to be rejected. Perhaps the threat of Herod and the flight into Egypt already indicate the beginning of his sufferings. He learnt obedience through suffering, so perhaps we can recall the incident of being lost in the Temple after which Jesus returns to Nazareth and is obedient to Mary and Joseph. He will at some point have experienced the suffering of grief after Joseph’s death, and possibly other similar experiences in the hidden life.


It is not long before he experiences suffering in the public life. The temptations and fasting in the desert, the opposition and hostility of the religious authorities, rejection by his own townsfolk in Nazareth, the cynicism of many in the crowds who came to see him, the selfish opportunism and manipulation by many who sought his miracles, the lack of understanding and self-interest of his immediate disciples, the exhaustion and other stresses of his labours, the lack of sleep and rest, the austerity of his life-style. We also know that he wept out of pity for Jerusalem and for Lazarus. We are likewise told that during his prayer he cried aloud and in silent tears to the Father to be delivered out of death. His heart must also have been increasingly sorer and sorer as the opposition to him intensified and the obstinate resistance of the Jewish establishment to his mission revealed itself in all its ugly godlessness, even accusing him of being possessed by Satan. How often, too, must he have been saddened by people who would not or could not respond to his love and his gospel. We see, too, how at times he becomes exasperated with the apostles and sighs deeply in anger and disbelief at those who continually provoked him.


All these types of suffering intensify during the Passion: the betrayal by Judas, the denial by Peter, the panicked withdrawal by the rest of the apostles bar John, the jealous treachery by the Sanhedrin, the blatant injustice of the charges against him, the feigned outrage when he openly states that he is the Messiah, the murky double-dealing between Caiaphas and Pilate, the rank cowardice of Pilate who knew well that he was committing a travesty of justice to save his own head, the fickle-hearted mob who flip-flop from “hosanna!” to “crucify him!” in a matter of hours, the raw, brutal and disproportionate torture by the Romans, the abuse by the baying crowds, the soldiers and the other criminals, the gloating Schadenfreude and self-righteousness of the Pharisees and chief priests at the Cross, the humiliation of being stripped in public and hung up like a piece of meat for the final gory circus and mindless hurrah of humanity drunk on ignorance and pride.


As if this were not enough, it is only the surface suffering endured by Christ for our salvation. For as all this is going on, he is carrying in his heart and soul the last iota of guilt for every sin ever committed in history: he is carrying the weight of the guilt of original sin, of Cain’s murder of Abel, of every sin punished by the Flood, of the sins of his own people of Israel down the millennia, of all the sins of whatever magnitude and horror of every other people and nation that has ever existed and will ever exist. He is carrying the guilt of the Holocaust, of every massacre perpetrated in whatever name, of every war that has been or ever will be waged, of every abortion and murder, of every abuse by every priest or by every father or mother, of every unjust law ever passed and applied. He is carrying the guilt of every sin committed against any commandment of God. He is carrying the guilt of every sin you and I have committed and, to our shame, we might yet commit, whether in the light of day or in the secret of our private homes and even more private minds and hearts.


The weight of all of this is focused on one point: on his sacred heart. Ours were the sufferings he bore; ours the guilt he carried; on him lies a punishment that brings us peace. And here’s the thing. He did not carry this crushing universe of sin in anger, or in bitterness. He carried it in eternal, merciful love. He carried it in eternally compassionate agape.


And if this were not enough, he carried it in such an inner existential loneliness that he could only cry out as he died, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is the only Son of the Father. This is the well-beloved of the Father. This is He who is Light from Light, God from God. This is He whose love drove him to create us in his own image and likeness. This is He without whose permanent and ongoing love we would cease to exist. This is He whom the wind and sea obey, but whom we cynically resent in the unspeakable folly of sin.


And yet, He did it, he endured it and he conquered it all pro nobis: for us men and for our salvation.


My brothers and sisters, our hearts should break with grief and sorrow when we consider how the mystery of Christ’s love brought him to bear alone in his soul the full and despicable weight of the mystery of iniquity. Yet, because of Him, because of what he wanted for us, our hearts should shout unceasingly and uncontrollably with joy and gratitude to the Lamb of God. He was crushed so that we would not be. He bore the guilt so that we would be free and innocent. He endured the agony of abandonment so that he could hold us in his arms and on his shoulders and bring us back to Paradise and the Father’s House. The Cross not only liberates us from sin, suffering, death and hell. It is the key and power for the healing of creation itself, for the healing of society, for the possibility of a world in which the weak and the poor become our national and international treasures, and true justice and lasting peace can be born.


Alas, it is hard to believe that that will happen if it is to depend on the will of human beings. But the unity of the human race will happen. Let there be no doubt and no mistake. It will happen because of the Cross and at the foot of the Cross. For Jesus himself said it: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all things to myself.” It is the Cross which is both the judgment and the salvation of the human race, of human history and of creation itself.


So, we must be wary of taking the Cross for granted; we must make the sign of the Cross with deep awareness of what it is we do. We are stating that the mystery of iniquity is conquered by the mystery of the love of Jesus. We must take time often to stand or kneel or lie prostrate before it in total and astounded silence. No matter who we are or think we are, no matter how good or bad we are or think we are, no matter what we are suffering: we must, we need to come before the Cross and simply look upon the one we have pierced, and weep for Him as for an only son. It will bring us healing. It will bring us peace.


Let me finish with the words of a hymn traditionally chanted on Good Friday and which I have loved since childhood. “Faithful Cross, above all other; one and only noble Tree; none in foliage, none in blossom, none in fruit thy peer may be. Fairest wood and fairest iron; fairer still who hung on Thee.”