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).
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