Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Next Level

Hopefully after the last couple of posts we’ve come to a greater understanding and acceptance of that presence of the Lord in our lives that manifests as necessary correction and even therapeutic punishments for our failures to be faithful to his will. Now we have to go a step further and see things in the most profound and positive light.

Jesus Christ “bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1Peter 2:24). Bearing our sins means not only “absorbing” them in Himself to neutralize their evil, but experiencing the penalty or punishment for them. The punishment that would last all eternity for us was concentrated in the body and soul of Christ for a relatively short time. When we today are required to endure any sort of divine chastisement because of our sins, it is not only instructive or purifying: it can also be granted to us as a share in Christ’s own sufferings for the same sins.

We have first to realize that all suffering has some relationship to sin. It is true that some people suffer innocently, that is, not as a consequence of their own sins (little children, for example). And it is not always easy or even possible to connect one’s suffering with a particular sin. Yet it remains true that the only reason there is suffering in the world is because there is sin in the world. There was no suffering in Paradise before the fall. But there has been ever since, and it is given in the Book of Genesis as a curse because of sin. “Suffering cannot be divorced from the sin of the beginnings, from what Saint John calls the ‘sin of the world,’ from the sinful background of the personal actions and social processes in human history… one cannot reject the criterion that, at the basis of human suffering, there is a complex involvement with sin” (Pope John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris).

So the fact that we suffer at all, whether it be a divine discipline or simply a result of causes built into the nature of things, or the result of other circumstances beyond our control, still has some relation to sin, which is at the root of the “fallenness” of this world. That means that you and I do not suffer innocently as Christ did on the Cross. Yet God in his mercy gives us the opportunity to make even his chastisements fruitful for us, and for those for whom we may offer our sufferings.

Since God laid on Jesus the iniquity of us all, and since He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, and upon Him was the chastisement that makes us whole (see Isaiah 53:5-6), the penalty for our sin was transformed into the sacrifice of our redemption. Thus the meaning of suffering has changed. “In bringing about the Redemption through suffering,” writes Pope John Paul, “Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ.”

We don’t really have to deal with the issue of whether we suffer innocently or not (and hence whether or not our sufferings are worthy to be united to Christ’s), because we are all guilty and hopelessly in arrears. But the gift of God in Christ is that, having made Christ’s suffering the means of our redemption, all further sufferings of mankind can be elevated to a new and fruitful level. The Pope continues: “The Redeemer suffered in place of man and for man. Every man [henceforth] has his own share in the Redemption. Each one is also called to share in that suffering through which all human suffering has also been redeemed.” All human suffering has been redeemed, i.e., carries the potential for great spiritual fruitfulness—if accepted as such through faith and love for Christ, who loved us and gave Himself for us (see Galatians 2:20). Therefore even what we suffer from divine punishments—administered as discipline or to help us learn life’s lessons and avoid future sins—can share in the redemptive power of Christ’s sufferings.

That is a great gift, so St Paul could say to the Philippians: “It has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him, but also suffer for his sake” (1:29). This brings what may have been our rather reluctant acceptance of the discipline of the Lord to a higher level. From the irksome daily annoyances to the most intense pain we may be called to endure, “all human suffering has been redeemed,” so we should be willing to offer it to God in union with Christ, grateful that He has given it a power, a value, and a meaning far beyond what it has in itself. Nothing we suffer is useless, nothing is wasted, if we choose to unite it to the redeeming sufferings of Christ.

Uniting our sufferings (regardless of their cause) to those of Christ is an act of faith and love, and only through this act are they spiritually beneficial and powerful. To paraphrase the Pope from the same Apostolic Letter: Faith enables us to know the love that led Christ to the Cross. And if Jesus loved us by suffering and dying for us, then with this suffering and death He lives in those whom He loved in that way. He lives in us. And Christ thus unites Himself to us to the degree that we, conscious of this through faith, respond to his love with our love.

We’ve now come a long way from merely resigning ourselves to the necessary and inevitable “punishments” of God which we suffer. Guilty and deserving of much more than He imposes on us, we still are granted further gifts by being allowed to increase the value of our sufferings by uniting them, through our faith and love, to those which secured our redemption. “Christ has led us into his Kingdom through his suffering. And also through suffering, those surrounded by the mystery of Christ’s Redemption become mature enough to enter this Kingdom.” Amen.