Sunday, October 18, 2009

Secondhand Suffering (29th Sunday, Year B)

Some of you in church this morning are dear friends of mine. Others are active members of the parish for whom my heart is filled with thanks. Still others are parishioners I don’t know personally. But everyone here is my brother or sister in the Lord.

It’s not surprising, then, that I pray for your wellbeing and happiness. I wish you good health, I wish you freedom from financial worry, and I wish you peace.

But I do not wish you never to suffer. For never to suffer means never to have loved.

Does that sound shocking? It shouldn’t. It’s possible, with good fortune and good genes, to get through life without ever facing serious illness. I heard someone complain once that her mother died in perfect health!

Getting through life without financial worry is getting tougher, but it’s still possible. The best way, I’m told, is by inheriting a lot of money. I haven’t tried that myself, but I have the blessing of a very secure job, which is the next best thing.

Finding peace and keeping it in our hearts is not easy. However, many people do achieve this through prayer, positive attitudes, and the practice of acceptance.

But avoiding all suffering is impossible: because even if you are spared personal suffering—even if your own life is running like a well-oiled machine—the odds dictate that someone you love will experience illness or misfortune. And their suffering will become yours. Unless you have a very small family, a very limited circle of friends—worse, unless you keep others at an emotional arms-length—you will experience suffering vicariously.

Vicarious suffering occurs when another’s suffering becomes our own. And sometimes that’s worse than anything that could happen to us directly. We’d be happy, in fact, to be the one with the cancer or the one battling depression—especially when we’re bound to the sufferer by family ties.

Someone said that when we marry, we give hostages to fortune.* What that means is that marriage and family—the place where most of us love most—is a place where suffering is almost inevitable.

So what do we make of “secondhand suffering” in light of the Scripture we have heard this morning?

It’s a key question. Even the Catechism notes that suffering is one of the experiences that seem to contradict the Good News and can shake our faith and become a temptation against it (CCC 164). I think we’d all agree with that—it’s used as a standard argument against Christianity. When the one who suffers is a child, it’s even easier to see the problem.

But if suffering does contradict the Good News, then we are in deep trouble. This really is one of the questions we can’t afford to ignore—because if we’re not facing it now, we’re going to, sooner or later. So let’s see what the Lord is trying to teach us.

Because it seems to me this a problem only Christ can solve. You can make a pretty good case for the existence of God using your head alone—in other words, with the tools of reason or philosophy. Try to do that with the suffering of children or the torture of innocents, or the maddening experience of unanswered prayer for healing of a loved one. It won’t work. Only Jesus can answer the problem of pain.

I was quite surprised, to tell you the truth, to find that the Catechism says very little about human suffering. Then I figured out why: it says little about suffering but lots about Jesus. And he is the answer.

Notice I say that “He is the answer,” not “He has the answer.” Jesus resolves the apparent contradiction between suffering and the Father’s love more by what he does than by what he says.

Who is the suffering servant crushed with pain in our first reading this morning? The Church has always identified him with Jesus.

We cannot know our Lord or understand his mission if we will not know or understand his suffering. Isaiah’s prophecy contains a simple statement of this truth: “The righteous one… shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.” His life is an offering for sin.

It sounds so dark. Yet “Out of his anguish he shall see light,” the prophet tells us, and “he shall see his offspring and prolong his days.”

This is not human reasoning. Anguish is anguish. Being crushed with pain is not a good thing. But this is the way God chose to ransom the world.

And although Jesus has redeemed the world, he has chosen to allow us to share in his work of redemption until the end of time. As St. Paul says, “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).

So the first answer Jesus gives to our heartfelt question about why he can allow human suffering is “because it permits us to drink the cup that he drank.” To suffer—firsthand or secondhand—is an invitation to become a partner in the saving mission of Christ.

Suffering that is offered to God is a work of atonement—for our own sins, the sins of others, and sin in the Church. We’re still reeling from the thought that a bishop right here in Canada could fall so far from grace; yet we can’t forget the example of Cardinal Bernadin—falsely and publicly accused, he spoke only kindly of his accuser, and gently forgave him everything before he died. Cardinal Pell, who visited our parish last year, was similarly the victim of a false accusation, which he bore with courage and grace.

(I am not saying this by way of comment or contrast with the present case, but rather to illustrate the fact that atonement is a powerful and necessary force in the Church, wounded by the sins of her members.)

While thinking about my homily yesterday afternoon, I asked myself this question: Can we know Jesus without knowing suffering?

I’m not sure—it’s a difficult question. But the more I thought about it the more one thing struck me: Jesus himself said the disciple is not greater than the master. I think, then, that Jesus’ second answer to why God permits suffering is “so that you might know me.”

The passage we heard from the Letter to the Hebrews is both consoling and instructive. We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has in every respect been tested as we are… Jesus was not Superman, unfeeling and immune; he wept, he bled, he grieved. To know his sacred humanity is essential to knowing his divinity.

In other words, Jesus stands beside all who suffer, in complete solidarity. Knowing this is a huge help to knowing him.

I have used a lot of words to say much less than a crucifix does about Christ’s answer to our questions about suffering.

One final word about unanswered prayer—because that topic often comes up when we’re talking about suffering, especially of loved ones.

The foot-in-mouth disease of James and John in today’s Gospel reminds us that we sometimes pray for things without knowing what we’re asking. Let’s give the two brothers a break, and assume they really didn’t have a clue. Perhaps they just wanted to be close to Jesus. They asked for crowns, he gave them the cross. They got what they really needed, not what they asked for.

I will never tell anyone not to pray for miracles, especially for others. But as the years go by, I’m more and more convinced that our first prayer in tough times should be for greater understanding of the mystery of suffering—and for the grace and courage to accept it.

* In fact, it was Sir Francis Bacon, who wrote in Essay 8 “He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.” He was actually talking about the consequences of celibacy in society, but the quotation is now used more in the sense in which I have paraphrased it.

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