I want to discuss a topic today that is very evident in today’s Gospel, has touched almost all of us here, and is something that is mirrored in daily events around us. The topic is suffering.
But I want to start at the very beginning of suffering in the Christian faith. The Church mandates that above each of her altars there should be a crucifix. Whenever we enter a Catholic Church, the crucifix should be the focus of our field of vision. The crucifix: a depiction of humiliation, torture, pain, and death. The crucifix: not just an empty cross, clean and elegant, but a cross being used to crucify the one man who never sinned, the one man who didn’t deserve to die.
Why such pride of place for such a cruel reality? Why not put scenes of Christ’s birth above every altar, or of his resurrection, or ascension? Because, as we read in Scripture “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”
Later we read in Corinthians 5: “Christ dying on the cross was the perfect sacrifice offered to God in loving atonement for our sins and the sins of all people .”
Christ dying on the cross was the perfect, loving act of obedience that reversed the disobedience of Adam in the Garden of Eden. With His arms stretched wide and raised between heaven and earth, Christ reconciled us to God and bridged the gulf opened by sin. If we want to go over that bridge and make our way to eternal life in communion with God, we too must pass through the cross. We must follow the footsteps of our Lord: suffering, self-denial, opposition, humiliation, and difficulty. We too may even have to lose the “whole world”, like so many saints and martyrs, in order to gain the truly abundant “life.”
You see, never ending joy is reserved for heaven; but the road to heaven is paved with crosses – notice I said “crosses” rather than crucifixes, because the cross of a Christian is always borne together with Christ, so that we who die with him will also rise with him.
We all have come to recognize that suffering is part of life in a fallen world. God allows it and uses it to teach us wisdom, compassion, patience, humility, and many other things, and to let us participate in his cross. Since a human life is never useless, Christ has made sure that, united to him by faith, no amount of pain will ever become unbearable.
We all want to die with dignity and Christ promises us that we will live with dignity for as long as His Father, the author of life wishes to keep us on this earth, whether in comfort or in pain. One of the best examples given to us was in the suffering of Pope John Paul II. No matter his pain and suffering, he valiantly continued on to lead the Roman Catholic faith. In that valiant struggle, he showed all of us how to live with suffering.
But sometimes, when life’s crosses are especially heavy, it is hard for us to remember the presence of God in our suffering. At times, like Job, we find ourselves rebelling against the suffering that God permits to come our way. It can be hard to find its hidden meaning. Those can be lonely, dark times, full of temptation and sadness. But God promises that he will be faithful. St Paul wrote: “God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it” (1 Corinthians10:13).
It is especially hard to remember when we are stricken with an illness that reminds us of our mortality. It is even harder when we lose someone we love or the hardest of all, to lose one of our children. Spending more than half of my life in ministry also means I have also been called to speak to those who mourn at a funeral Mass more often than I like. I have never been able to provide an answer, nor have I ever heard anyone else provide an answer, as to why God chose to call someone to His side. But I do know that the power of our faith reminds us that those who have died have been called to His side. We cannot and must not ever lose sight of the fact that we gather here because of the promise of eternal life and death is the final passage to that life. The tears we shed, the pain we bear in our life are because we miss the presence of that person in our hearts and in our daily life. But the fact that the person we love is together with the God we love has to, in the end, bring us some consolation and some peace.
When we are confronted with physical pain and face our mortality, there is the natural tendency to cry out : “Why me? “ We fear the loss of the life we know because we cannot touch, feel or scent the life that will be. The pain that accompanies serious physical illness is profound because we have known what it is to be free of that pain. What do we do at such a point? The choices are only two. We either choose to live with that suffering and pain but determined to make the best of the days left to us or we withdraw into a world of darkness, and isolation and despair. But once again, our Risen Lord enters the equation. We know that He may not choose to end the pain and the illness but we know that He will be there to end our isolation, our darkness and our despair. By simply calling on Him to give us the strength to continue, by believing that He is there, we will feel his presence around us.
When crisis surrounds us – emotional crisis – when suddenly our world has been turned upside down by one event or another, there is pain. Real pain. Real pain accompanied by fear, uncertainty and self-doubt. Then and there, we feel alone. Then and there we want to cry out for help. We look around and often choose to bear it in silence. But bearing it in silence only adds to the fear and uncertainty. Yet we often do not know where to turn. Once again, that cross beckons us. Those outstretched arms remind us that His suffering was to give us the strength of those arms. That broken body, scarred by floggings and mutilation, reminds us that no suffering is so great that we cannot bear it – as long as we hold that crucifix close to us.
Through all of these sufferings, God’s presence is real. We can feel it in the strength he gives is and we feel it in the comfort and support of other people who surround us, in times of suffering, with their strength. Therein lies the secret of how each of us can not only endure suffering but feel surrounded by God’s presence.
The inner meaning of enduring suffering is to remember that we are called to help each other carry our crosses.
Jesus didn’t let us suffer alone. He came and walked beside us through the incarnation, comforting, strengthening, and inspiring us with his example of self-sacrificial love. And through the Eucharist, he actually walks with us, letting his strength become our strength when we receive him in Holy Communion.
We must do the same for others. When family members, coworkers, or neighbors find themselves bending under the weight of a heavy cross, we must be Christ for them, reminding them that God’s love is real, that Christ has given meaning to their suffering.
We are the ones who must help them continue to pray when their faith is wearing thin. We are the ones who must comfort the sorrowful, visit the sick and imprisoned, counsel the confused, and show the face of God to those who are having trouble finding it. We are the ones who must reach out and find those burdened by suffering. The more we help those around us carry their crosses, the more Christ-like we become, and the more Christ himself will be able to help us carry our crosses. Is there anything more we could ask?