Sermon: Do Not Be Afraid to Suffer
No one likes to suffer. We know that suffering is an inevitable part of life, and that Christ even took on suffering He did not deserve out of love for us. Even though we know that Christ suffered for us, and that we too are called to offer sufferings (both those that are inevitable in life and those we even voluntarily seek out through penance), we still usually think of suffering as a necessary evil.
This is not the way things are meant to be. Christ did not take on human flesh and redeem us through His death and resurrection merely to make suffering bearable. Instead, He totally transformed the human experience of suffering from within. Christ, we hear from St. Paul today, “learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” When we look upon Christ crucified, we don’t think of perfection. And indeed, we could ask, how does Christ, who knows everything, learn? And how does Christ, who is truly God, become perfect? Isn’t He perfect already?
Christ certainly does not gain new knowledge of obedience – this is true. But He does put the virtue of obedience into action by conforming His human will to the divine will of the Father. Becoming perfect means that Christ’s humanity is perfected by the Resurrection, which is only possible after His suffering and death. Passing through suffering with a spirit of obedience and reverence, humanity is made perfect and transformed from within. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”
Suffering with obedience and reverence is a gift to those we love because it gives them the chance to see Christ in us. Last week, I celebrated a beautiful funeral Mass. The family chose the Gospel passage of the crucifixion and death of Christ from St. John. This is, unfortunately, a rarely chosen Gospel passage – likely because people find it too sad, and because the world tells us not to engage with our grief or to ignore it. However, when we have eyes of faith, the suffering and death of Christ are not something to be feared.
St. John recounts how in his final moments, Christ called out in thirst, and the soldiers held up a sponge soaked with wine to his lips. Likewise, in his final days, the thirst of this man – unable to drink or swallow – had been alleviated by a small sponge on a stick. If you have cared for a loved one in their last days or hours, you likely have had this experience as well. This man had revealed God to his family for many years, through the love of a faithful husband and father. In those last moments, though he could not speak, he communicated with a power beyond words the love of Christ for them as he embraced Cross and the passion of Christ was played out in his home.
While we all fear suffering, that fear is particularly acute amongst those who fear being a burden to their loved ones in their final years. This fear exists because we have been deluded about the meaning of human existence. We fear being a burden because we are afraid of limiting others’ freedom, and this, freedom conceived as absolute personal autonomy – the ability to be a law to oneself – we take to be the ultimate meaning of human life. And in this, we are absolutely wrong.
The spouse, children, and other loved ones who devoted themselves to the care of their beloved husband, father, and grandfather – and countless others I have witnessed perform this heroic duty of love – are the freest people in the entire world. Their freedom is determined not by their ability to follow their own whims, but by the degree of their love.
St. John Paul II taught, “in suffering there is concealed a particular power that draws a person interiorly close to Christ, a special grace. … A result of such a conversion is not only that the individual discovers the salvific meaning of suffering but above all that he becomes a completely new person. … When this body is gravely ill, totally incapacitated, and the person is almost incapable of living and acting, all the more do interior maturity and spiritual greatness become evident, constituting a touching lesson to those who [care for them]” (Salvifici doloris, 26). It is in that moment of intense suffering and even death when we ourselves can be made perfect, when we can be conformed totally to Christ: “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.”
Certainly we would all still prefer not to suffer. Indeed, we pray fervently that we might not have to suffer. Christ too, St. Paul tells us, “offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence,” referring to Christ’s intense prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before His death. And yet, was not Christ’s request denied? Why does St. Paul say that He was heard, when the chalice in fact did not pass Him over without Him having to drink of it? Christ was heard because His most fervent desire was to save all of us, and it was through his death and resurrection that this was to be brought about.
God likewise seems often not to answer our prayers to avoid suffering – either for ourselves or for others. But He works most fervently not for our comfort, but for our salvation. The experience of suffering transforms us from within, remaking us in God’s image, and uniting us more perfectly to the God who did not hesitate to send His only Son to suffer, die, and rise for us.
This experience of suffering also gives us the opportunity to live our baptismal priesthood. By baptism, every Christian is a priest, prophet, and king. Living our priesthood of the baptized doesn’t mean trying to take on as many roles as possible during the Sacred Liturgy. It means living the priesthood of Christ in our everyday lives. The priest is first and foremost the one who offers sacrifice. Christ offered the sacrifice of His body on the altar of the Cross as both priest and victim. Our altars might be different – the sick bed, the factory, the desk, the nursery – but the real way in which the experience of suffering unites us to Christ is not. In suffering with obedience and reverence, we too are “made perfect.”
Disobedience is the hallmark of man. It was disobedience to God’s command that was the original sin that broke the harmony of the world before the Fall. We think of Christ’s Passion taking on the punishment due to our sins – which is true – but Christ’s greatest act of redemption can be summed up in this word: obedience. He was obedient where we were disobedient, and in Him we have the chance to be obedient once again every time God invites us to enter His life by suffering.
“Now is the time of judgment on this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” The time for Christ’s judgment is not just 2,000 years ago and whatever time He comes again in glory. It is now as well. That judgment upon the world, though, is mercy. Through participating in Christ’s death and resurrection, He wants to share this mercy with us – with you.
From the earthly perspective, it would be most merciful to eliminate the experience of suffering altogether. But the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom. His infinitely wise mercy invites us to be drawn up to Himself in the experience of reverent and obedient suffering, through which we become “a new kind of person,” a living icon of Christ. When we see Christ in those who are suffering, and when we engage the experience of suffering in such a way as to allow God’s grace to transform us from within, old age and illness cease to be a burden and become the source of a greater freedom that finds its meaning and purpose in love.
“Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” In the experience of suffering with obedience and reverence, the Christian, in his baptismal priesthood, not only experiences Christ’s salvation, but can even become the vessel through which God pours out His judgment of mercy upon the world. When we flee from suffering – because of fear of being a burden, or because of our natural indisposition – we lose this precious opportunity to become a new person and a privileged vessel of God’s love. Do not be afraid of the Cross, but allow Christ to draw you to Himself.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
Passion Sunday, A.D. MMXXI
Image: Cristo Crucificado. Diego Valezquez (1599-1660). 1632. Museo del Prado, Madrid. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cristo_crucificado.jpg