As we have seen in last month's issue of Light and Life, there can be no doubt on the level of faith that God is directing all the suffering of His servants to the ultimate good of eternal life. Where this control over evil and suffering is especially seen is in the suffering, death, and resurrection of our Blessed Savior. All that has taken place in Christ is the very source of our hope whenever suffering draws near. Hope and the cross are intimately bound to one another precisely because of what Christ did through the cross as His instrument of salvation. His passion and death will be seen as a work actively engaged and managed. In His sufferings, He was taking a hold of all human suffering and bending it to His will. Thus with the cross, there were vast changes being made in the very nature of suffering. He was refashioning affliction, taking what was essentially something barren, and making it bear fruit in eternal life.
A sympathetic secular observer, taking the Gospels only on the level of an historical document, would undoubtedly be impressed by the courage of Jesus in confronting the corrupt Jewish authorities of His time. His calm and self-possessed bearing when arrested by them, falsely accused, and put to death point to a perfection of human virtues never seen before among men. Such a non-believer would acknowledge the profound self-mastery of Jesus as injustice and suffering reach so horrifying a level. But, we might ask, is He a master in any wider sense? Was He a master of Himself to the extent that He could fend off the death of the body by an act of will? Could He will His life to continue, despite His wounds, and make it happen? The secular observer would, of course, say no to such broadening of influence over His bodily existence. The nature of man does not permit such extensive control. And this is where the Christian pierces to a deeper level of understanding of what is taking place in the passion and death of Jesus. Though He submits to the death-dealing malice of His enemies, they would have no power to strip away His life unless He permitted it, because He is God as well as man. As our Blessed Lord Himself informs them regarding His bodily life: "No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again" (Jn. 10:18).
St. Thomas highlights the uniqueness of what was happening in the death of Jesus by going right to the heart of the problem - His absolute control over physical reality. Death by its very nature is a breaking of the union of body and soul. The body reaches a point of collapse where it is unable to continue its union with the soul, necessitating its departure to eternal existence in the realm of the spirit. For man, the control over this union is beyond him. Physical things, like the body, are not ultimately subject to our will. But this is not true in Our Lord's case, as St. Thomas explains:
The Angelic Doctor observes that the centurion who stood near Christ as he was breathing his last was struck by the presence of this divine power (Ibid.). Remarkably, as the Gospels tell us, He heard Our Lord expire with a loud cry, completely exceptional for a man at the moment of death. Weakened by intense suffering and the collapse of our bodies, we can scarcely muster the strength to breathe. That Our Lord could cry out loudly, St. Thomas points out, is a sign of His divinity, controlling His body and willing that it was now time for the separation to take place. Responding to this cry with profound astonishment and perception, the centurion said, "Truly this man was the Son of God!" (Mk. 15:39).
The suffering He endured was thus under His calculated, thoughtfully chosen direction. Seemingly not controlled, it was masterfully controlled. Such that, with St. Thomas, we can look to deeper reasons for all that was taking place in His passion.
We can notice an embracing of suffering that was, in a most astounding way, beyond what was required. Supremely beyond! He had only to undergo the slightest of afflictions to atone for the sins of the entire human race. As God, any trial, being mistreated by a townsman, hunger or thirst, would be of infinite atoning value. By the time He reached His passion He had atoned, on this basis, for the sins of humanity thousands of times over. But it was not enough for Him to simply enter our world, quickly take care of atoning for our sins in some minor affliction, and then depart. As Fr. McNabb so wonderfully put it, this ". . . would not suffice for the love of the Redeemer. He meant to give copious redemption. He willed that the beaker should brim over. He gave a thousand redemptions all in one" (Craft of Suffering, 79). Such was the love He wanted to make sure to get across to us through the cross. He wanted there to be no doubt in our minds as to the intensity of His love.
Add to this astounding, lavish flood of atoning merit, our Blessed Lord's choosing a journey to death that took Him through the broadest possible spectrum of human suffering. St. Thomas explains the range of affliction Our Lord endured (III, 46, 5). On the level of those who were causing Him suffering, there were Gentiles and Jews, men and women, rulers and servants, close friends and casual acquaintances. Then St. Thomas says He experienced every type of suffering. Friends abandoned or betrayed Him causing a painful loneliness. His reputation was run through the mud. His glory and honor were mocked. He was robbed of His garments. His soul was brought down by sadness, exhaustion and fear. His body was covered with wounds. On a third level, He suffered in all His bodily members. There was a crown of thorns pressed into his head. Nails were driven through His hands and feet. His face was struck and spat upon. There were lashes over His back and legs. And lastly, He endured affliction in His five bodily senses. Touch was filled with pain through the nails and the scourging. Taste was afflicted in being given vinegar and gall to drink. Smell was tormented by being lifted up on the cross in a place reeking with the stench of corpses. In His hearing He had to endure the insults of those crucified with Him and His enemies below. In His sight He had to witness the tears of His mother and the disciple who was so dear to Him.
Thus in His passion we witness the fullest possible expression He could find of His desire to join men in whatever suffering they may come across in life. But it was not simply a joining mankind in a passive sense of the word. As we have seen, He was ultimately in charge. He was actively taking to Himself, through reaching out to all varieties of human suffering, the totality of suffering that mankind would endure from the creation of the world to the last day.
But Our Lord's assumption of all human suffering was only a beginning. If it would have stopped there the reality of suffering would have remained unaltered. The cross would represent no more than an act of divine pity at a horrible mess of human affliction. He needed to go to the very roots of suffering, which is sin. And this He did through His death, which brought to completion His act of atonement, and healed the spiritual wound from which suffering has sprung. With the resurrection and ascension Our Lord brings suffering into complete subjection to Himself. What were causes of the stripping of His body of earthly life, become the causes of infusing His body with supernatural life.
In addition to this, Christ's mastery over suffering and death would profit us nothing if it remained of benefit to Him alone. An individual act of resurrection does nothing to offer hope to mankind. Most essential, then, for the hope we can find in the cross is that somehow Christ's cross becomes ours, and Christ's resurrection becomes ours.
Here, again, we return to the absolute dominance He can muster at will over all reality. Through absolute power, He was taking to Himself on the cross all human sin and affliction. Through the absolute power of the Father, with Whom He is one, He gained the forgiveness of all sin by His death, and was raised from the dead on the third day. And through absolute power, once again, He will unite to Himself all people who consent to follow His Gospel. This is that same absolute power reflected in the statement of Jesus referring to His death on the cross, His resurrection, and His ascension: "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself" (Jn. 12:32). In this statement is the bonding of all who are baptized to Himself, as St. Paul teaches, into the one Body of Christ.
Our hope then in the cross comes down to this: He can do all that He wills. He has willed to make the cross in His own human life a stage that leads to eternal resurrection. He has willed to unite to Himself as one Mystical Body all who believe in Him and are baptized. And finally, He has willed that suffering be thus transformed in the lives of all members of His Body to produce the same effects of atoning for sin and eternal life that they produced for Him.
Part of being joined to Christ is experiencing the suffering, death, and resurrection for ourselves. This is the sign that we are one with Him. That we suffer is an indication that there is union with Him. Yes, all in this world must go through affliction. It is part of life. But the difference between the affliction of life simply speaking, and the affliction we have as Christians, is that in the latter case we have ceased being individuals suffering on our own, and we have joined the suffering Body of Christ. We can say with St. Paul, "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me" (Gal. 2:20). The suffering becomes the sign verifying the union. While the life of the flesh continues in affliction, the soul is refreshed by divine union. For those who value that union above all else, the cross draws them on and fills them with hope. As St. Paul will say after his many afflictions in spreading the Gospel, and showing us the cross's potential for lifting the human spirit: ". . . Far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (Gal. 6:14). The time will come when the sign of our union with Him will come to its perfection in the resurrection. Our resurrected bodies, radiant with divine light, will manifest for all to see that this is a person bound for ever to God in the most intimate union. But we must understand that the resurrected state is not the only one in which a person is united to God. This occurs also in the suffering state of individuals in this world, burdened with affliction.
And this is our consolation. To all appearances our afflictions are the same as those commonly experienced by men. But this is only the level of appearance. The deeper reality is we are not living our lives on the purely human level any more. We are living them on the level of the Son of God. The sufferings we are going through are of that exalted status. They are Son-of-God sufferings. They have the divine presence running through them.
We explicitly acknowledge this divine presence in our sufferings when we recognize, as the Church teaches us, that they have a power of atoning for sin that is immeasurably beyond any merely human act. Among the older generation of Catholics "let's offer it up!" was a common expression when some trial arose. This is not simply a pious saying, nor a phrase that should be left behind. A profound truth was being expressed. The underlying current of divine power running through our afflictions makes the willing acceptance of even a relatively small amount of pain, and the consecration of it to God, of astounding benefit to a soul in need. We must remember that any such offering, when we are united to Christ through charity, becomes an act of Christ Himself. And when we do "offer it up" we must think of Christ imparting His own power to that act. The more that offering is made with love, the greater Christ's divine power will be working through it. The thought frequently expressed by Mother Theresa of Calcutta harkens to this profound truth: "God does not ask of us great things. Only little things done with great love." The least of our deeds and afflictions will take on the very efficacy of Christ Himself when we unite ourselves to Him as fully as possible in love. Thus what is essential in using our afflictions to the greatest benefit to ourselves and others is making a consecration of those afflictions with a full and generous heart, pushing ourselves to the utmost in loving sacrifice.
Christ has brought the fullness of His divine power to bear on our sufferings. This is what the cross means for us. It stands for human suffering that God has acted upon and transformed through His almighty power. This is not to say that suffering before Our Lord mounted the cross had no value. It had value in terms of justice as a response to sin. The offence demanded a corresponding punishment for justice to be satisfied. Then too there was what we might call a "medicinal" value to affliction. It healed humanity of aberrant behavior. Suffering was, and still is, the sign of leaving a path of human activity that is good for us both in our lives here on earth, and with our relationship with God. We might say it was, and still can be, a sign for us of where not to go. But (contrary to the present time after the cross) suffering did not lead anywhere in itself. It was a dead end, that did indeed only lead to death.
Then came our kind and Blessed Lord's entry into our human scene. And suffering has no longer been the same. What was once barren, now bears fruit in eternal life. What was once a dead end, has become a highway to life. What was once only an indication of human behavior drifting away from God, now has become, for those who are seeking to please God, a sign of our union with God in Jesus Christ. And there is here something to rejoice in, as St. Peter was so wanting the Church to recognize: "Rejoice in the measure that you share Christ's sufferings. When His glory is revealed, you will rejoice exultantly. Happy are you when you are insulted for the sake of Christ, for then God's Spirit in its glory has come to rest on you" (1 Pt. 4:13-14).
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