Thursday, July 24, 2014

Redemptive Suffering

The fear of suffering, pain, and death seem like unconquerable mysteries. My time here at CPE has helped me to understand, via experience, that they are not necessarily things that need to be conquered. No amount of faith excludes us from experience pain, loneliness, and death. Money, power, and other earthly things makes these three experiences even worse. With this in mind, I began to wonder if the words of Qoheleth were not as negative as they appear: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Ecc 1:2). Earthly things will pass which also means these things, both good and bad, will pass. Yet this does not ease the blow of the mystery of suffering and death. Even if they pass away they still remain with us our whole lives.

For me, this mystery is one that is only solved by the Cross. The cross is, for me, the foundation of my theology the ministry I do. The cross is the Incarnational moment where love and suffering meet. Love because “God is love” (1 Jn 4:16b) and suffering because the human condition is deeply affected by sin and death (Gen 3:16ff). Christ took upon himself the entirety of our human condition. While this expressed itself in his person I believe it was brought to completion by his sacrifice. It was only in his death that he was able to “reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col 1:20).

How does this inform my theology? First, if Christ chose to take on all of humanity he also took on pain, loneliness, and death in all completeness. He did not run from them but endured them and experienced them to the full. Thus any ministry inspired by Christ must be a ministry willing to encounter and experience all of the human condition. Secondly, did not Christ through His actions reconcile all things to himself? If this is the case he also reconciled what is lowly and base to our human existence. Thus in ministry encountering what is base, disgusting, and disturbing is an opportunity to encounter Christ in the same capacity as that which is lofty, beautiful, and joyful. There is no discrimination in what Christ assumed in our humanity. He became like us in all things but sin (cf. Heb 4:15).1

As such, in my mind and in my ministry I attempt to approach a Catholic theology of suffering. The primary way is the Catholic view of suffering or, more specifically, redemptive suffering. What do I mean by redemptive suffering? Only this: that our suffering when united to Christ shares in his mission of salvation. How is this so? Christ is married to the Church as his spouse and the “two [have] become one flesh” (Gen 2:24). Moreover “no man hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the Church, because we are members of his body” (Eph 5:29-30, cf. Eph 5). We are by virtue of our baptism joined to Christ and the Church. We are joined to the body of Christ such that we are one with him. “This is a great mystery” (Eph 5:32). Yet Scripture proclaims that as Saul persecuted the "disciples of the Way" Christ himself said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? … I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:4, 5). Lastly, Paul himself says, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete2 what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col 1:24).

Christ entrusted his disciples with his Spirit to carry out his mission of salvation to the whole world and to all ages. The Church was established as his bride and He himself is the head of the body. We are extensions of his body. We share in the sufferings of those to whom we minister (and we ourselves also suffer). Christ identifies with us, especially with those who suffer (cf. Mt 25:40), should we not also identify with Him in turn? Christ assumed humanity so as to redeem it, thus with confidence I say he also redeemed suffering. The suffering we experience can be joined to Christ who even after the Resurrection complained to Saul that He himself was being persecuted. Christ's suffering continues in His Body, the Church, because we live in a world redeemed but not yet saved.3 We too, in joining our sufferings to Christ, suffer for the sake of His Body (cf. Col 1:24). And indeed “he did this once for all when he offered himself” (Heb 7:27b). Thus we too “must present ourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Rom 12:1). This means that the suffering I experience in myself and others can be effective in Christ's saving work for the one who suffers (and even myself). When I share in the suffering of another I attempt to share in the suffering of both Christ and the individual.

1“For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning.”
2In Greek the verb “antanapleiro” also has the sense of “filling up” or “making full.”
3For while this present age is passing away (1 Cor 7:31) it is still in the process of doing so. We await the “glory to be revealed in us” (Rom 8:18).

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In a special way keep Grace Oliver, 23, in your prayers as she battles cancer in the face of a very difficult diagnosis. While my words may express a cognative struggle with this issue, my words are shadows compared her words in the face of suffering and death. Please pray for her and please read what she has to write: Grace Oliver and Dumb Cancer

Monday, July 14, 2014

Seeds and the Soul

[The was originally preached at Sunday mass, 7/13/2014. The readings for that day may be found here: USCCB.]

As the rain falls down it does not return to the heavens until it has accomplished its task. So it is with God's word which he sends down to earth constantly. In our mass this day we receive God's word twice. The first is through Scripture, which teaches us about the history of God's saving work and reveals to us who we are. The second is Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. When we receive Him, not just in word but fully, He dwells in us and we in Him.

But consider for a moment how rain falls upon the earth. When it rains it falls on every sort of terrain: fertile soil, dry and cracked earth, grasslands, and forests. While fertile soil receives rain and produces fruit, the other sorts of terrain will produce little more than what they already have. Fertile soil needs to be prepared to receive rain and produce fruit. As you receive God's word this day, how have you prepared yourself to receive it? What will you do once you receive it?

Perhaps this story will aid you in meditating upon these questions:

There were once three neighbors who each had a plot of land behind their houses. The land was set up to be a garden. Because each had many concerns they left their gardens for another time. As time went on wild grass and weeds covered the whole area. One day, each neighbor was inspired to dedicate time to making their garden look as each one desired. After many long hours of toil the land was cleared and prepared. They took many types of seed, planted them, and they quickly grew. But then came trouble:

The first man became distracted by other concerns again. When he saw some of the weeds growing and how they had flowers he assumed that this was what he planted and let them grow. While the seeds he planted indeed grew the weeds and grass also grew up and consumed the whole garden once more.

The second man was more attentive. He made sure to pull weeds and care for the land. He took care of what he had planted diligently. One day, however, he had to leave on urgent business and left the garden unattended for a week. When he returned, his hard work had prevented everything from being lost but his garden was a mess and he lost much of his progress. When he asked his family, “Why did you not care for my garden?” they replied, “You never asked us to help you.”

The third man was as attentive as the second one. He cared for the land with great fervor. When a crisis arose that distracted him he told his family, “I am troubled by what has happened but I also fear that while I am away my garden will be destroyed and overrun. Will you help me care for it?” His family all helped him. When the crisis passed and he was once again able to focus on his garden he found that the many plants he had cultivated had now matured. His family rejoiced with him as the garden produced vegetables, spices, and flowers. He shared his produce with his family and even his neighbors and all praised him for his work.

Are you confused at all, brothers and sisters, as to the meaning of this parable? The garden is our soul and the seeds planted in them is the Word, Jesus Christ, and all he taught. God has also planted in us many kinds of virtues and talents which require diligence and effort. God does not give us anything fully mature, but only as a little seed.

The weeds are the many sinful inclinations each of us have. Some of them are small and can be easily uprooted. Others need to be held with both hands and ripped out. Some grow because we are inattentive. Others grow because they appear good and attractive. Whether big or small, if we are inattentive to our sins and our bad habits, they can overwhelm the good we have and they can set us back.

And how often, brothers and sisters, does work, illness, family issues, and stress take us away from our garden? The second man did not ask for help and when life turned him away from his soul he found that he had sunk back into his old habits. The one who sought help, who asked his loved ones to keep him honest and attentive when he couldn't be, returned to find his soul at peace and in it more mature fruits of the Holy Spirit.

Let us not fool ourselves, however, and say that every good thing we have is the work of our hands. God has given us the seeds and he sends forth the rain, His grace, to aid us in our life. But God has also given us the capacity to work alongside Him, to cultivate and personally own the good He has given us.

He teaches us through Scripture, but we must own Scripture for ourselves too. He has given us the saints to inspire us, but we too are called to be saints through a life of faithful endurance. He has given us the Church to guide and protect us when we falter, but we must also choose to walk with her. And God has given us His only Son and, when we receive Him, do we mean what we say when we say “Amen”?

So this day, my brothers and sisters, do not delay in entering the garden of your soul, preparing it to produce many good things. Indeed we all have harvested many good things already. When we discern what is good and what is evil and sinful we can catch ourselves before we're overrun. Rely and trust on each other, for we are all brothers and sisters in this one house and in this one, holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. It is then that we share in God's many gifts, being supported when we are burdened and supporting others who need us.