Shared Suffering

This is a post about suffering, and the suffering of God with his creatures. One of the most radical things about Christianity is its central belief that God didn’t choose to make the Messiah a glorious political leader, but to make him God’s own incarnated Logos — which in Greek signifies Word, Mind, Logic, Reason. Even more radical than this is the belief that in joining himself to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, God took upon himself all of the human condition. Not just love, laughter, and all the good stuff; he took suffering, pain, heartache, betrayal, abandonment, grief, and the weight of all the sin of humankind as expressed through the torture and gruesome murder of a Roman crucifixion. His purpose wasn’t the establishment of a political kingdom, but the once-and-for-all reconciliation of humanity to God through forgiveness of sins and infinite mercy…and the ultimate transcendence of death through the Resurrection. Indeed, the oracles of the Suffering Servant of the Lord in the Book of Isaiah predicted a Messiah who suffers by taking upon himself the sins and guilt of us all, making reparation for us.

We don’t have a comprehensive answer to suffering. But Christians believe that we do have a God who suffered for us, and suffers with us even now. That fact doesn’t solve the problem. But it does situate suffering inside a circle of meaning, which helps to provide us with some strength and the comfort of God’s solidarity with us. Anyone who suffers anything that Christ suffered — violence, grief, cruelty, humiliation, fear, sadness, and all the rest of it — can know that their suffering isn’t done alone, for God suffers with them in love and companionship. He shares our suffering — just as when we suffer, we share in the sufferings of Christ. And we know that even though Christ suffered, his suffering gave way to the Resurrection, which meant that suffering didn’t have the final word. That is God’s promise to us.

The Pietà, one of Michelangelo’s most famous sculptures, is a marble picture of suffering.

Michelangelo's Pietà

Michelangelo’s Pietà

Saint Mary the Blessed Mother cradles her recently scourged, abused, pierced, and murdered Son. We don’t know how much she knew about what was going to happen afterward; we don’t know if she had any sense of his upcoming victory in the Resurrection and Ascension to God. It seems unlikely, given the intense surprise and confusion of Jesus’ disciples over the Resurrection. But all we know is that her suffering at this moment must have been unimaginable. Parents suffer along with their children at even minor problems and injustices. Here Mary suffers the worst pain a parent can ever suffer: living through the death of their child. And, it can be argued, the worst kind of death: death that involved intense pain and abuse before it finally claimed the body that had been pushed to its limit. She, too, knows suffering. And she, too, wants us to know that suffering is not the end, just as it was not the end for her or for her Son. Here is an excerpt from the fourth and final oracle of the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah, which Christians believe foretells Jesus:

“He was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, knowing pain/ Like one from whom you turn your face, spurned, and we held him in no esteem./ Yet it was our pain that he bore, our sufferings he endured,/ We thought of him as stricken, struck down by God and afflicted,/ But he was pierced for our sins, crushed for our iniquity,/ He bore the punishment that makes us whole, by his wounds we are healed./ We had all gone astray like sheep, all following our own way;/ But the Lord laid upon him the guilt of us all./…Because of his anguish he shall see the light; because of his knowledge he shall be content;/ My servant, the just one, shall justify the many, their iniquity he shall bear./ Therefore I will give him his portion among the many, and he shall divide the spoils with the mighty,/ Because he surrendered himself to death, was counted among the transgressors,/ Bore the sins of many, and interceded for the transgressors.” (Isaiah 53:3-6, 11-12)

It turned out, according to Christian faith, that this Servant who suffered for us and with us was none other than a Messiah who embodied both full God and full humanity in one Person. Suffering will exist as long as this world endures. But as long as it does, we can look to the Cross of the Suffering Servant and know that even though we don’t have all the answers, our suffering is shared. And then we can look at Jesus’ empty tomb and know that suffering doesn’t have the final word.

© 2013 Elizabeth Keck

 

Ascension Day

For Christians, yesterday was Ascension Day — the day in which the bodily ascension of Jesus Christ to Heaven is commemorated. Some churches offer special services on this day because of its solemnity, and certainly Catholic churches, for whom the Ascension is a holy day of obligation (although some dioceses transfer it to the nearest Sunday so that more people can celebrate it). I had already planned to attend one of these services with my daughter, but felt even more so after the area in Massachusetts where I live was hit with multiple destructive tornadoes and severe lightening storms for a stretch of hours the day before. Parts of my state were devastated – even parts of surrounding towns relatively close by – and my town had been listed as one of those that could very well be in a certain tornado’s path. As it turned out, my town escaped, but so many others did not. For our family, it was a terrifying near-miss. In Massachusetts, tornadoes touching down is a surreal experience.

I woke up the morning of the Ascension with profound sadness for those who had lost their homes, but also with profound relief and gratitude that my home and my family had been spared. This happy relief felt as if someone had infused a shot of extra, fresh oxygen directly into my lungs, and I wanted to give expression to it. My daughter and I arrived for a noon Mass.

As I mentioned before, it was a holy day of obligation; so naturally I assumed no one would be there. I was surprised, though, to find quite a few people there – perhaps others had woken up that morning sharing my thoughts. The readings for the day centered on Jesus’ ascension skyward in the sight of his disciples, including Acts 1:1-11, in which the disciples cannot stop themselves from continuing to gaze upward where he had gone. The text then says that two men in white (these would be angels) appeared beside them and asked why they continued to stand there and look upward, since “this Jesus will return in the same way” that they had seen him go. The Gospel reading concluded with what Matthew presented as Jesus’ last words before the ascension, telling his disciples, “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20).

It was this last reading that factored most heavily into the priest’s homily, which, as I had hoped, centered on the upheaval of the preceding day and its psychological aftermath. His message concerned the presence of God with us through such disasters, pointing out that while we all felt for those whose lives had been upended by storms in the Midwest, having a natural disaster hit geographically so close to home gives it a different meaning entirely. So, quite rightly I think, he connected Jesus’ words in Matthew to current events, noting that they apply to us just as much as the early disciples.

I did go to church because it was Ascension Day, but I also went to give expression of my thankfulness that my family and my house were preserved from the worst of the storms. I am aware that expressing my thanks to God also raises questions theologically. I know that weather is random and its own beast (I explored this in an early post,”The Fall-Guy for the Weather?”), and it is not God choosing to smite certain innocent homes with tornadoes and spare others. So I knew that expressing my gratitude to God might be inherently illogical. After all, I knew there was nothing special about me or my house that God would actively spare it while ignoring other homes that ended up destroyed. That is also why I hesitate to say that I feel blessed, because does that imply that God has blessed me but not others? That he has intentionally withheld blessing from others? I’m not comfortable believing that, and it seems arrogant to do so. In fact, I believe that God does not cause destruction but is very present with those who suffer from it, because I believe my faith when it tells me that God, in Christ, suffered both with and on behalf of humanity.

So if I believe that God did not choose some houses to be destroyed by the tornadoes and others to be spared, what is the logical basis for my thanks? To me, the answer is that there is none. But perhaps strangely, I am mostly comfortable with that. That knowledge will not prevent me from thanking God that I and mine were spared from a deadly natural disaster. It will not prevent me from praying that my house will still be there (as I did on Wednesday evening), nor prevent me from feeling profound gratitude to God afterward. I cannot identify any rhyme or reason to the destruction of June 1 in Massachusetts (or, for that matter, natural disasters elsewhere). But I will still be thankful. And I still believe that God is very much present with the suffering of those who have lost homes and even loved ones. If there is one thing about which Christianity is unshakably clear, it is that ours is a God who is acquainted with suffering, and who does not shy away from it.

© Elizabeth Keck 2011