SHARERS IN THE SUFFERING OF CHRIST
19. The same Song of the Suffering Servant in the Book of Isaiah leads us, through the following verses, precisely in the direction of this question and answer:
“When he makes himself an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring,
he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand;
he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul
and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant.
make many to be accounted righteous;
and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out his soul to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors”.
One can say that with the Passion of Christ all human suffering has found itself in a new situation. And it is as though Job has foreseen this when he said: “I know that my Redeemer lives …”, and as though he had directed towards it his own suffering, which without the Redemption could not have revealed to him the fullness of its meaning.
“As though Job has foreseen this…” Job may not have literally foreseen what would take place, yet his hope was placed in the God who redeems. This hope was fulfilled in the seeming despair of Christ’s “abandonment” to death and the grave.
In the Cross of Christ not only is the Redemption accomplished through suffering, but also human suffering itself has been redeemed,. Christ, – without any fault of his own – took on himself “the total evil of sin”. The experience of this evil determined the incomparable extent of Christ’s suffering, which became the price of the Redemption. The Song of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah speaks of this. In later times, the witnesses of the New Covenant, sealed in the Blood of Christ, will speak of this.
These are the words of the Apostle Peter in his First Letter: “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with the perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot”.
And the Apostle Paul in the Letter to the Galatians will say: “He gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age”(56), and in the First Letter to the Corinthians: “You were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body “(57).
With these and similar words the witnesses of the New Covenant speak of the greatness of the Redemption, accomplished through the suffering of Christ. The Redeemer suffered in place of man and for man. Every man has his own share in the Redemption. Each one is also called to share in that suffering through which the Redemption was accomplished. He is called to share in that suffering through which all human suffering has also been redeemed. In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, 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.
Christ, being “abandoned” to the suffering of the Cross, shares in our self-imposed exile, and shows us how that exile is transformed from slavery into a pilgrimage. To unite our sufferings of Christ is to become a fellow pilgrim with Christ and share his cross as did Simon of Cyrene.
20. The texts of the New Testament express this concept in many places. In the Second Letter to the Corinthians the Apostle writes: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh …. knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus”(58).
Saint Paul speaks of various sufferings and, in particular, of those in which the first Christians became sharers “for the sake of Christ “. These sufferings enable the recipients of that Letter to share in the work of the Redemption, accomplished through the suffering and death of the Redeemer. The eloquence of the Cross and death is, however, completed by the eloquence of the Resurrection. Man finds in the Resurrection a completely new light, which helps him to go forward through the thick darkness of humiliations, doubts, hopelessness and persecution. Therefore the Apostle will also write in the Second Letter to the Corinthians: “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too”(59). Elsewhere he addresses to his recipients words of encouragement: “May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ”(60). And in the Letter to the Romans he writes: “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship”(61).
We are to present our bodies as a living sacrifice because our bodies are not our own: they are Christ’s body sacrificed and given to us for our daily bread. This explains the strange saying of St. Ignatius of Antioch, “I am God’s wheat, and I am ground by the teeth of wild beasts that I may be found pure bread [of Christ].”
The very participation in Christ’s suffering finds, in these apostolic expressions, as it were a twofold dimension. If one becomes a sharer in the sufferings of Christ, this happens because Christ has opened his suffering to man, because he himself in his redemptive suffering has become, in a certain sense, a sharer in all human sufferings. Man, discovering through faith the redemptive suffering of Christ, also discovers in it his own sufferings; he rediscovers them, through faith, enriched with a new content and new meaning.
This discovery caused Saint Paul to write particularly strong words in the Letter to the Galatians: “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”(62). Faith enables the author of these words to know that love which led Christ to the Cross. And if he loved us in this way, suffering and dying, then with this suffering and death of his he lives in the one whom he loved in this way; he lives in the man: in Paul. And living in him-to the degree that Paul, conscious of this through faith, responds to his love with love-Christ also becomes in a particular way united to the man, to Paul, through the Cross. This union caused Paul to write, in the same Letter to the Galatians, other words as well, no less strong: “But 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”(63).
Participating in Christ’s sufferings opens up to us a participation in Christ’s on divine life, and in this way also, it is eucharistic. For to suffer with Christ is to receive His Life in His Body & Blood. Likewise, participation in the Eucharist opens us up to the deepest dimensions of human suffering. Indeed, it opens us up to dimensions of human suffering which can only be found in their full meaning through the Cross of Christ.
21. The Cross of Christ throws salvific light, in a most penetrating way, on man’s life and in particular on his suffering. For through faith the Cross reaches man together with the Resurrection: the mystery of the Passion is contained in the Paschal Mystery. The witnesses of Christ’s Passion are at the same time witnesses of his Resurrection. Paul writes: “That I may know him (Christ) and the power of his Resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead”(64). Truly, the Apostle first experienced the “power of the Resurrection” of Christ, on the road to Damascus, and only later, in this paschal light, reached that ” sharing in his sufferings” of which he speaks, for example, in the Letter to the Galatians. The path of Paul is clearly paschal: sharing in the Cross of Christ comes about through the experience of the Risen One, therefore through a special sharing in the Resurrection. Thus, even in the Apostle’s expressions on the subject of suffering there so often appears the motif of glory, which finds its beginning in Christ’s Cross.
The witnesses of the Cross and Resurrection were convinced that “through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God”(65). And Paul, writing to the Thessalonians, says this: “We ourselves boast of you… for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions which you are enduring. This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be made worthy of the Kingdom of God, for which you are suffering”(66). Thus to share in the sufferings of Christ is, at the same time, to suffer for the Kingdom of God. In the eyes of the just God, before his judgment, those who share in the suffering of Christ become worthy of this Kingdom. Through their sufferings, in a certain sense they repay the infinite price of the Passion and death of Christ, which became the price of our Redemption: at this price the Kingdom of God has been consolidated anew in human history, becoming the definitive prospect of man’s earthly existence. Christ has led us into this Kingdom through his suffering. And also through suffering those surrounded by the mystery of Christ’s Redemption become mature enough to enter this Kingdom.
Our suffering united with Christ’s makes us to participate in his pilgrimage from Gethsemane to Golgotha, and ultimately to the Resurrection. It is often said that the Cross is meaningless without the Resurrection. But it is just as true that the Resurrection is meaningless without the Cross. For, how can one arrive at the end of one’s journey unless he has traveled? Our pilgrimage ends in the Kingdom of God, which is the perfection of life in us, where Christ is all in all.
22. To the prospect of the Kingdom of God is linked hope in that glory which has its beginning in the Cross of Christ. The Resurrection revealed this glory—eschatological glory—which, in the Cross of Christ, was completely obscured by the immensity of suffering. Those who share in the sufferings of Christ are also called, through their own sufferings, to share in glory. Paul expresses this in various places. To the Romans he writes: ” We are … fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us”(67). In the Second Letter to the Corinthians we read: “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to things that are unseen”(68). The Apostle Peter will express this truth in the following words of his First Letter: “But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed “(69).
Though Christ’s glory was, to human eyes, obscured by His crucifixion, it is nonetheless there that the seeds of His glorious Resurrection are shown. Though He was crowned with thorns, His thorns are a crown. And if we share in those thorns, then we also share His crown.
The motif of suffering and glory has a strictly evangelical characteristic, which becomes clear by reference to the Cross and the Resurrection. The Resurrection became, first of all, the manifestation of glory, which corresponds to Christ’s being lifted up through the Cross. If, in fact, the Cross was to human eyes Christ’s emptying of himself, at the same time it was in the eyes of God his being lifted up. On the Cross, Christ attained and fully accomplished his mission: by fulfilling the will of the Father, he at the same time fully realized himself. In weakness he manifested his power, and in humiliation he manifested all his messianic greatness. Are not all the words he uttered during his agony on Golgotha a proof of this greatness, and especially his words concerning the perpetrators of his crucifixion: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”(70)? To those who share in Christ’s sufferings these words present themselves with the power of a supreme example. Suffering is also an invitation to manifest the moral greatness of man, his spiritual maturity. Proof of this has been given, down through the generations, by the martyrs and confessors of Christ, faithful to the words: “And do not fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul .
In weakness Christ manifested His power, and if we allow our weakness to be taken up into His, then it too will manifest the divine power and glory of the Cross and Resurrection.
Christ’s Resurrection has revealed “the glory of the future age” and, at the same time, has confirmed “the boast of the Cross”: the glory that is hidden in the very suffering of Christ and which has been and is often mirrored in human suffering, as an expression of man’s spiritual greatness. This glory must be acknowledged not only in the martyrs for the faith but in many others also who, at times, even without belief in Christ, suffer and give their lives for the truth and for a just cause. In the sufferings of all of these people the great dignity of man is strikingly confirmed.
The Cross is a hidden glory, like a seed that is planted in the ground, hidden in apparent death. But unless it dies, it cannot bring forth life. “If we have died with Christ we shall also live with him.” These words of St. Paul have reference to baptism, but the tradition of the Church has also recognized a baptismof desire and a baptism of suffering, whereby we join ourselves to Christ. Even those who have suffered without knowledge of Christ will ultimately find that it is Christ’s sufering that gives theirs meaning.
23. Suffering, in fact, is always a trial—at times a very hard one—to which humanity is subjected. The gospel paradox of weakness and strength often speaks to us from the pages of the Letters of Saint Paul, a paradox particularly experienced by the Apostle himself and together with him experienced by all who share Christ’s sufferings. Paul writes in the Second Letter to the Corinthians: “I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me”(72). In the Second Letter to Timothy we read: “And therefore I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed”(73). And in the Letter to the Philippians he will even say: “I can do all things in him who strengthens me”(74).
Those who share in Christ’s sufferings have before their eyes the Paschal Mystery of the Cross and Resurrection, in which Christ descends, in a first phase, to the ultimate limits of human weakness and impotence: indeed, he dies nailed to the Cross. But if at the same time in this weakness there is accomplished his lifting up, confirmed by the power of the Resurrection, then this means that the weaknesses of all human sufferings are capable of being infused with the same power of God manifested in Christ’s Cross. In such a concept, to suffer means to become particularly susceptible, particularly open to the working of the salvific powers of God, offered to humanity in Christ. In him God has confirmed his desire to act especially through suffering, which is man’s weakness and emptying of self, and he wishes to make his power known precisely in this weakness and emptying of self. This also explains the exhortation in the First Letter of Peter: “Yet if one suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but under that name let him glorify God”(75).
Christ emptied HimSelf in becoming man, and still more in His obedience to the Cross. If we can follow Him in emptying ourselves, then we will find ourselves filled, not with the spirit of this present world, but with the Spirit of Christ, being made partakers of the divine nature. This also explains a rather puzzling phrase which arose in the Christian tradition of referring to the “happy fault [of Adam and Eve] which gained for a us so great a redeemer.” Because we are broken, we can be mended. And when Christ does the mending, He remakes us better than before.
In the Letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul deals still more fully with the theme of this “birth of power in weakness”, this spiritual tempering of man in the midst of trials and tribulations, which is the particular vocation of those who share in Christ’s sufferings. “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us”(76). Suffering as it were contains a special call to the virtue which man must exercise on his own part. And this is the virtue of perseverance in bearing whatever disturbs and causes harm. In doing this, the individual unleashes hope, which maintains in him the conviction that suffering will not get the better of him, that it will not deprive him of his dignity as a human being, a dignity linked to awareness of the meaning of life. And indeed this meaning makes itself known together with the working of God’s love, which is the supreme gift of the Holy Spirit. The more he shares in this love, man rediscovers himself more and more fully in suffering: he rediscovers the “soul” which he thought he had “lost”(77) because of suffering.
Suffering contains a special call to virtue, in particular to the virtue of hope. We may often have a hard time understanding how hope is a virtue like courage or wisdom or patience. But hope is the desire for the good things which Christ has promised. And in our day, do we not see that many among us do not even have a desire for that which is Good, even if they understand that it is Good? Hope reaches beyond mere desire, though, to be a grasping of those good things by our will, and an orientation of our life towards them. Suffering opens us up to hope by making us reach beyond ourselves.
24. Nevertheless, the Apostle’s experiences as a sharer in the sufferings of Christ go even further. In the Letter to the Colossians we read the words which constitute as it were the final stage of the spiritual journey in relation to suffering: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church”(78). And in another Letter he asks his readers: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?”(79).
In the Paschal Mystery Christ began the union with man in the community of the Church. The mystery of the Church is expressed in this: that already in the act of Baptism, which brings about a configuration with Christ, and then through his Sacrifice—sacramentally through the Eucharist—the Church is continually being built up spiritually as the Body of Christ. In this Body, Christ wishes to be united with every individual, and in a special way he is united with those who suffer. The words quoted above from the Letter to the Colossians bear witness to the exceptional nature of this union. For, whoever suffers in union with Christ— just as the Apostle Paul bears his “tribulations” in union with Christ— not only receives from Christ that strength already referred to but also “completes” by his suffering “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions”. This evangelical outlook especially highlights the truth concerning the creative character of suffering. The sufferings of Christ created the good of the world’s redemption. This good in itself is inexhaustible and infinite. No man can add anything to it. But at the same time, in the mystery of the Church as his Body, Christ has in a sense opened his own redemptive suffering to all human suffering. In so far as man becomes a sharer in Christ’s sufferings—in any part of the world and at any time in history—to that extent he in his own way completes the suffering through which Christ accomplished the Redemption of the world.
“Completing” the suffering of Christ: it sounds heretical. Is there something that Christ did not do in his suffering? No. He has done it all. But still his suffering must be “completed” in some way. Notice the way that Paul says that it is in his “flesh” (or body) that he completes the suffering of Christ. Why is this? Because the suffering of Paul’s body is the suffering of the Body of Christ. Indeed, it is in a certain way, Christ’s own suffering for His Body. This is why the suffering of Paul can be effectual for the benefit of the Church.
Does this mean that the Redemption achieved by Christ is not complete? No. It only means that the Redemption, accomplished through satisfactory love, remains always open to all love expressed in human suffering. In this dimension—the dimension of love—the Redemption which has already been completely accomplished is, in a certain sense, constantly being accomplished. Christ achieved the Redemption completely and to the very limits but at the same time he did not bring it to a close. In this redemptive suffering, through which the Redemption of the world was accomplished, Christ opened himself from the beginning to every human suffering and constantly does so. Yes, it seems to be part of the very essence of Christ’s redemptive suffering that this suffering requires to be unceasingly completed.
Christ is open to suffering, because in HimSelf he has fulfilled every suffering. And, if we are in him, our suffering completes in us, His body, the suffering which he has already completed for us.
Thus, with this openness to every human suffering, Christ has accomplished the world’s Redemption through his own suffering. For, at the same time, this Redemption, even though it was completely achieved by Christ’s suffering, lives on and in its own special way develops in the history of man. It lives and develops as the body of Christ, the Church, and in this dimension every human suffering, by reason of the loving union with Christ, completes the suffering of Christ. It completes that suffering just as the Church completes the redemptive work of Christ. The mystery of the Church—that body which completes in itself also Christ’s crucified and risen body—indicates at the same time the space or context in which human sufferings complete the sufferings of Christ. Only within this radius and dimension of the Church as the Body of Christ, which continually develops in space and time, can one think and speak of “what is lacking” in the sufferings of Christ. The Apostle, in fact, makes this clear when he writes of “completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church”.
The suffering of Christ took place at a particular time and place, but Christ is not limited to that time and place. In the Eucharist and in His Mystical body, He continues to be present to us here and now. And in them, we are made present to his suffering.
It is precisely the Church, which ceaselessly draws on the infinite resources of the Redemption, introducing it into the life of humanity, which is the dimension in which the redemptive suffering of Christ can be constantly completed by the suffering of man. This also highlights the divine and human nature of the Church. Suffering seems in some way to share in the characteristics of this nature. And for this reason suffering also has a special value in the eyes of the Church. It is something good, before which the Church bows down in reverence with all the depth of her faith in the Redemption. She likewise bows down with all the depth of that faith with which she embraces within herself the inexpressible mystery of the Body of Christ.
The mystery of the Body of Christ is to be ever present with Christ. Present at His Incarnation, at His Baptism, and at His Passion. All these things are present, but Christ’s passion, as the source of our redemption, is present to us in a special way. May we enter more deeply into it’s heart.