Questions about suffering inevitably lead to questions about God and the meaning of life. Where is God in suffering? A powerful and all-loving God would not permit suffering. Therefore, God must be a sadist or an impotent entity. Such inescapable questions haunt persons of faith and those of no faith because they affect us at the very core of daily living.
In one symphony after the other, Gustav Mahler, asks the question of all questions: What is the meaning of life and why is it filled with suffering? Among his trials was the fact that his wife Alma was a collector of men. The question dogged him to the rest of his life despite the fact that, in his Second Symphony, “the Resurrection,” the final text cries out: “Rise again, my heart, in the twinkling of an eye! What thou hast fought for, it shall lead thee to God!”
By contrast, in his famous Ninth Symphony, “The Ode to Joy,” Beethoven, completely deaf in 1824, brings joy out of intense suffering.
Jesus and the Human Condition
When everything has been done to remove suffering, and it persists, a person either deals with it or suffers more intensely from fighting it. Grave suffering re-arranges the whole of one’s life, but maturity begins with accepting the fact that struggle is an integral part of life. With it comes the invitation to grow in compassion, wisdom, and love.
And yet, even in dark hours, we do sense a ray of light in the darkness that holds meaning for us. Despite setbacks and in the face of despair, Christian hope is possible only in the light of Christ’s redemption for he comes in absolute love that identifies itself with suffering and with the sufferers of the world. He suffers in solidarity with us.
Jesus did not seek out suffering for its own sake. He was weighed down with suffering from all sides. Human malice did him in. Doesn’t this have a familiar ring to it? In human terms, his life was an appalling failure. A skeptical culture asks if Jesus is the world’s redemptive hope. If the cross leads to diminishment and loss, in what way can an instrument of Roman torture be considered a triumph and “the tree of life?” What is the significance of Jesus’ suffering? Of my own suffering? How can suffering be transformed into something meaningful and even beautiful?
The Mission of Jesus
In spending his life for others, Jesus shared with them his mission and exemplified the mandate of love. This itinerant rabbi cultivated relationships with people of all types. Instead of ingratiating himself with the powerful, he stood with the poor. According to the religious authorities, he blasphemed by daring to call God his Abba – his papa, whose kingdom he was proclaiming. His Abba was also ours, who forgives us, and makes us his children once more. To some, Jesus seemed like the Messiah, with an aura of glory about him. To others, he was a pretender and rabble rouser. How could this man be God in human form? Jewish leaders had to deal with him under the eye of Roman rule, and he faced their criticism with dignity and without retaliation. The person of Jesus remains the unique standard by which beauty, truth, goodness, all aspects of love, are judged.
The Jewish Pasch
Every year at Passover, Jews throughout the world recall, re-live, and celebrate the saving mystery of God’s deliverance of them. The Passover prefigures the Christian celebration of the paschal mystery of the Lord. At the time of the Exodus, the angel of death passed over Jewish homes marked by the blood of the lamb (Ex 12ff). To make their escape, they hurriedly baked unleavened bread, ate and consumed the roasted lamb. This act completed the blood sacrifice of the Old Covenant, for to eat the sacrificial victim was to partake of the fruits of the sacrifice (Jer 11:19-20;1 Cor 10:18). The blood of the unblemished lamb was a scapegoat that spared the Israelites from continued slavery. Henceforth, the Feast of the Unleavened Bread was to be kept as a sacred memorial – transformed later in to Holy Thursday, for Catholics and Orthodox Christians.
The New Pasch
Similarly, each Holy Week, Christians recall, re-live, and celebrate the saving events of Christ, as the Passover Lamb who fulfills the Hebrew prophecies. The liturgies of the Triduum summarize them: the fall of Adam through pride and disobedience, the consequences of the first sin, Jesus’ earthly life, passion, death, and Resurrection. Like the Passover ritual, the liturgies wash over the faithful as together they experience their personal and ecclesial salvation. The mystery of the God-Man is a powerful symbol that has inspired artists, writers, and composers throughout history.
On Good Friday, the most solemn day of the liturgical year, a hushed Christian world ponders Christ’s death expressed in many texts, one of which proclaims: “Behold the wood of the cross on which hung the salvation of the world. Come, let us adore.” Human logic recoils at this proclamation.
The Examples of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jackie Robinson
Suffering may be chosen for a higher purpose. Three figures of recent memory resemble Jesus and his mission, though his was not primarily concerned with the temporal. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. entered public service for the sake of justice and ultimately gave their lives for it: Gandhi, to win India’s independence, and King, to implement Civil Rights in the United States. The events that unfolded in their lives became the context for their respective missions. They spoke of freedom in simple, profound, and authoritative words, drawing people from disparate places. The unjust oppression of the powerless provoked their reaction. In the face of legal but immoral laws, they resisted, but non-violently. Though Gandhi and King saw the inevitable dangers threatening their message, they accepted the real possibility of dying for their respective causes.
Jackie Robinson did not die a martyr, but in the 1940's, he anticipated the Civil Rights Movement. He suffered for the cause of the Negro and for all minority men and women in sports breaking the intractable color barrier with uncommon dignity. Branch Rickey, owner of the Dodger franchise warned Robinson that as the first black man to play in the major leagues, he dared not retaliate against prejudice, however fierce. Time and again Robinson “turned his cheek.” The memories of these men remain fixed in our collective memory for the beauty, truth, and goodness of their characters. Their lives shine like the stars.
Prophecies of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of the Lord. Philippians 2:5-11
Jesus predicted his passion and death to fulfill the prophecies through the mouths of the Old Testament prophets. In fact, centuries before Christ, the prophecies predicted that the expected Messiah would be despised and rejected by men.
In St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the divine plan of the Incarnation and the paschal mystery hovers over universal redemption. Christianity proclaims that Jesus saves all men and women by canceling out Adam’s pride and disobedience with humility and obedience. As a result and with our cooperation, all men and women are redeemed. In the Incarnation, Jesus freely put aside his divine status without changing or clinging to it. As an act of love towards his Father, he assumed his redemptive mission.
The Father and the Son
The Johannine gospel, more than the Synoptic narratives, initiates a rich Trinitarian theology of three salvific agents. Here, the reciprocal love between the Father and the Son is striking. Jesus reveals what his Father meant to him in the language of love: “I am in the Father, and the Father is in me.” (Jn 14:10) Jesus speaks of our participation in this divine life: “...You will understand that I am in my Father, and you in me and I in you.” (Jn 14:20) The relationship is one of love, and this outpouring of love is the Spirit, a divine person. The Father-Son relationship is the centerpiece of this gospel. Though inseparable and distinct from the Father and Son, the Spirit proceeds from both by way of love. It was not necessary for the Father to command his Son to suffer; love sees the need and responds to it.
Jesus’ Solidarity with Humankind
The scene of the Agony in the Garden surprises us. On the verge of crisis, Jesus prays not for strength, courage, and acceptance of his Father’s will. Instead we witness the human repugnance, the horror, the revolt, and the effort to escape. With the arrival of the final hour, Jesus becomes Everyman when he cries out with the Psalmist, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” (Ps 22:1) He pours himself out, “tasting death for everyone,” (Heb 2:9) but his plea is made without despairing. Jesus seeks consolation from his Father, because his life has been spent pleasing his Father (Jn 8:29). But now, he feels abandoned by the one he most loves. “It is as if the Father loads on him the full burden of sin that is absolutely opposed to God. How can this be? The one who is God’s Word in the world is dumb,” writes” Hans Urs von Balthasar (The Glory of the Lord, VII: 208). And yet, Jesus trusts his Father to the very end. Psalm 22 ends on a note of hope; the Lord has not hidden his face from the suffering soul.
Finally, “it is finished,” and Jesus releases his Spirit (Jn 19:30). His powerlessness is shot through with God’s power to save, and his obedience of love is raised high in final glorification. Everything has been pared down to two aspects of one reality: love as the reason for his suffering and total dependency on the Father.
Although Jesus has fulfilled the Scriptures, his suffering is not that of a passive man but of one who actively receives and responds. The drama of Jesus’ suffering of love was undertaken pro me and pro nobis, and every man and woman is a player on the stage of this spectacular tableau. Each of us is Judas and Peter, the thieves, the crowds, and the guards, Simon, Veronica, and the beloved disciple. Why suffering? The cross is illogical and has always contradicted human logic. It is a madness, a scandal, a stumbling-block (1Cor 1: 21-22). For the disciple of Christ, the only logic is that of love. Only love is credible. At the same time, the Psalmist often encourages the Israelites to pour out their complaints to the Lord and tell him of all their troubles. They do so repeatedly.
Contemporary logic, which boasts of self-sufficiency, repudiates Christ’s condition as foolishness. But Jesus helps his disciples to make sense out of suffering, not according to the human way of thinking, but according to his. He brings his followers to the cross and, sooner or later, expects us to understand it as his very own logic, despite Paul’s emphatic declaration that the cross is God’s wisdom and power to save (1 Cor 1:17, 25; 2:5). In her Dialogue, St. Catherine of Siena strikes at the heart: “Oh, Loving Madman! Was it not enough for Thee to become Incarnate, that Thou must also die?”
God’s Foolishness Is Salvation: Two Examples from Hebrew Scripture
The Book of Exodus initiates us into God’s folly. Despite Yahweh’s commands that Moses seek the release of his people from the Pharaoh, Moses is forewarned. God will make the ruler obstinate so that he will refuse the request. Is this not sheer madness? When all seems lost, God’s inscrutable logic saves the Jews in the Passover-Exodus event. God’s foolishness is wiser than Moses’ logic.
Job offers another example of God’s foolishness. Job has proved himself a good and faithful servant. A man who has everything suddenly loses all. His loss is unmerited. Anguish afflicts body and soul. He condemns himself and rubs in his failures. Curse God, his friends urge, but he refrains from doing so. The first point the Book of Job makes is that suffering is not evidence of sin. When Job’s friends muse that he has sinned to deserve such misery, the reader knows this to be false. Job’s suffering was a test of his faith. Even as he grew angry with God for being unjust – wishing he could sue him in a court of law – he never abandoned his belief.
Job’s moral outrage prompts God’s response, thereby demonstrating that the sufferer who believes is never alone. God’s voice “out of the whirlwind” carries a less than satisfying response: “Where were you when I laid the Earth’s foundations? Do you really want to reverse my judgment, and put me in the wrong to put you in the right?” (Job 40:83) God’s designs are inscrutable. Though God does not come out of this narrative very well, Job has no response and falls silent. The same is true in the Christian scriptures. “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died,” cries Martha (Jn 11:21). Her despair is surely understandable, but it is transformed into joy when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.
The Resurrection and the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
He suffered, died, and was raised in resurrection glory by his Father. On September 14th, the Church “lifts high the cross” because God’s weakness and folly prove wiser and stronger than the strength and wisdom of creatures. Suffering has no human logic. Still, in his human nature, Jesus shows us how to suffer. Without suffering out of love, acceptance of pain is a servile act. The lesson is simple, if maddening. Like Moses and Job, we do not save ourselves in the way we want. Each of us is saved within God’s provident care. Without this conviction, we can lose the grace of suffering, and it is a grace. The folly of human suffering becomes our glory, but we experience this only after the fact. It is a paradox.
To use an image from art: We live most of our lives on the hidden side of our own tapestry being woven according to a pattern by the master weaver. How many times must the needle pierce the tapestry before it is completed? We see only tangled and loose threads. The design on the front remains hidden, but it’s there.
The cross is the glory of the Lord. The cross of Jesus was his resurrection. His life was the candle that burned itself out in order to give its light to all. When people suffer out of love for God, it is only the fact that they have been inflamed by the most sublime of beauties – a beauty crowned with thorns – that justifies their sharing in that suffering. In Psalm 22, the faithful soul suffering before a silent God, but that soul places itself entirely in the hands of the Lord who will deliver it. The Psalm closes with the afflicted one praising the Lord. On the cross, Jesus expressed the meaning of Psalm 22 in his prayer to his silent Father. Jesus foretold his last hours on the cross: “If I be lifted up, I will draw all things to myself.” (Jn 12:32) The Father transforms Jesus’ death into resurrection glory. The Father glorifies him as Lord of the universe, God’s perfect work of art. Yes, the lesson is maddening but clear and simple.
Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].