Ps 15 R/. O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
These past couple of weeks have brought a lot of violence and suffering to the foreground. The world is hurting, people are hurting, and many are searching for meaning in the sight of such suffering.
My brothers and sisters, in our second reading today, St. Paul teaches us about the value of human suffering: I am now rejoicing in my sufferings … and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions… (Col 1:24).
Suffering is one of the great mysteries of our fallen human existence. It’s unpleasant, unwanted and frequently confusing. So why does St. Paul rejoice in suffering? Isn’t that just madness? The rest of us do everything we can to avoid it, some even go so far as to kill themselves or others to avoid suffering. So why is Paul rejoicing? Is he insane? Is he masochistic? Or is it perhaps because he understands something we don’t?
You see, my brothers and sisters, suffering isn’t ‘natural’. What I mean is that it isn’t part of what God created; it doesn’t come from Him. Suffering is the result of something missing; it’s the absence of something good — health, peace, comfort, love, hope… In this sense, suffering isn’t ‘positive’, it’s ‘negative’: something good has been negated, removed. We suffer because things aren’t how they should be.
The Bible teaches us that this is the result of sin, which negates and destroys goodness. Original sin broke our relationship with God, and particular sin destroys His grace in us. It’s this brokenness that brings us suffering.
Now that doesn’t mean that all suffering is directly related to sin. A person doesn’t have cancer because he or she has sinned, or a child isn’t abused because he or she has sinned. The connection between sin and suffering is much broader and more foundational than that. But suffering didn’t exist before Adam and Eve disobeyed God. All of Creation was in harmony before the Fall: animals, plants and humans all coexisted peacefully and without hostility or death. Sin — Adam and Eve’s disobedience — broke this harmony and suffering entered the world. Love was wounded by distrust, order by rebellion, harmony by selfishness. And the farther away from God the world gets, the greater the suffering. This, too, we see in the Bible: the next sin after Adam and Eve’s disobedience is Cain’s murder of his brother Abel. And it just gets worse from there. We need only to look at the events of the past couple of weeks to see how sin and suffering multiply.
In this sense, suffering is an evil; it isn’t part of God’s goodness and plan for us. But God is always able to turn evil into good. And He does the same with suffering.
The human struggle with the mystery of suffering is a major theme throughout the Bible. The people of Israel had long understood that suffering was a necessary dimension of being God’s chosen people. He chastises those closest to Him, said Judith (cf. 8:27). [He] disciplines those whom he loves, we hear in Hebrews and Proverbs (Heb 12:6; Prv 3:12). Israel understood that it was through suffering that God would teach them to trust Him, teach them to be faithful, teach them to be obedient. Through suffering, God would purify their hearts for love of Him.
Now it’s not that God punished them or that He caused them suffering, but rather that He allowed the consequences of sin — again, original and particular, as well as individual and societal — to help them understand the reality of what it means to be separated from Him. It’s like a parent who lets a stubborn child learn the hard way that disobedience or dangerous play has consequences. Through suffering the child comes back to mom and dad with tears looking for comfort and reconciliation. God allows suffering because it reminds us of what we’ve lost and that He’s still waiting for us.
But in Jesus, God brings about a new dimension in suffering. Jesus, conceived without sin and not guilty of sin, endured tremendous suffering. And He did so not out of a struggle with disobedience like the rest of us, but willingly: Jesus chose to endure suffering, and for our sake! He suffered for us, not for Himself! This is what St. Paul is getting at.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul tells us that love bears all things… endures all things (1 Cor 13:7). Jesus reveals this to us in His suffering. In His love for us, He chose to bear our suffering and make it His. Now, whenever Jesus enters into the human condition in this way, He transforms it, and this is what He does to suffering.
Before Jesus, suffering only had educational value: it was only good to teach us the consequence of sin and the reality of our distance from God. But now, Jesus, because He chose to suffer out of love, transformed suffering to give it a ‘positive’ dimension. Suffering can now redeem and bring about salvation! And not just the salvation of the one who suffers, but also the salvation of others. By His Passion and Death on the Cross, Jesus saves us. His suffering gives the fruit of our salvation, and not just yours and mine, but of all humanity — past, present and future. His Death He died once for all so that all might be redeemed from sin and death (1 Pt 3:18; cf. Rom 6:10). This is why we rejoice in His sufferings on the Cross — by His stripes we are healed (cf. Is 53:5; 1 Pt 2:24).
Ok, that’s great; it explains Jesus’ suffering, but what about mine? Why should St. Paul or I rejoice in suffering? And if Jesus suffered and died for all people of all times, how could anything be lacking? Well, my brothers and sisters, this is the mystery that St. Paul understood and that we often don’t. No, nothing is ‘lacking’ in the sufferings of Jesus. His Passion and Death has repaired all sin; nothing’s been left out. That’s not what St. Paul is saying.
When I began my homily with St. Paul’s quote I intentionally left out two short but important phrases: I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body, that is, the Church (Col 1:24).
St. Paul rejoices in his sufferings because He understands them to be a participation in the Passion and Death of Jesus. Through Baptism, we became one with Jesus; we became a member of His Body, the Church. Therefore what happens to Him happens to us, and what happens to us happens to Him. If one member suffers, all suffer together, wrote St. Paul (1 Cor 12:26).
What’s lacking in Christ’s afflictions, according to St. Paul, are my sufferings and yours. As disciples of Jesus, as members of His Body, we can and must join our sufferings to His. Through prayer, we can give our sufferings to Jesus and join them to His Passion. This is what will give them meaning and fruitfulness.
This is why Paul is rejoicing in his sufferings, because he’s united them to Jesus’ Passion for our sake! He loves us as Jesus loves. And in doing so, his love for us increases and he’s conformed in an even more perfect way to Jesus who suffered for us. Paul rejoices because he understands that suffering is a means of being more closely united to Jesus in His love for the Father and for the world. And he rejoices because he understands that by offering this suffering to Jesus as an act of love and communion, he’s able to experience the strength and consolation of Jesus who suffers for Him and with Him. In other words, Paul rejoices in his sufferings because they’re a source of grace, a source of divine life, and therefore also of hope and salvation!
Because of Jesus’ Passion and Death, rooted in His love for the Father and for us, our sufferings have value; value for us as a means of communion with Jesus, and value for others as we embrace suffering as an act of love and offer it for their salvation. Through suffering, we have a unique way of being one with Jesus. This is why St. Paul is able to say elsewhere that it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me (Gal 2:20), and, I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me (Phil 4:24).
That said, it doesn’t mean that we ought to go out looking for sufferings to embrace for the sake of our sanctification and the salvation of the world. It isn’t about suffering, but about union with Jesus. Suffering will find us; there’s no shortage of it in our world today. We’re simply called to accept the suffering that comes our way — whether physical, emotional, psychological or spiritual — and prayerfully offer it (repeatedly!) to Jesus, uniting it to His Passion for our own conversion and for the salvation of others. Jesus will do the rest. The more we do this, the easier it will be, and the lighter and more joyful will the suffering itself be, even to the point of calling suffering ‘sweet’ and ‘joyful’ as St. Paul and so many of the Saints have done before us.
As we celebrate Mass today, may we bring all of our sufferings, all of our sorrows, all of our pains to the Lord, placing them on the Altar with the bread and wine, uniting to Christ’s sacrifice so that through Him we may also experience the consolation and joy of the Father’s love. Amen.