The Way of BeautyAnnunciations of Suffering

When Jesus began his ministry, he chose to make us men and women his cherished followers.  Wanting us to be his companions, he expressed it in the words, “I call you friends, for I have made known to you everything I have learned from my Father” (Jn 15:15).  In calling us in to his friendship, Jesus wanted us to share his divine life.  This raising up to a godlike stature is best expressed by the Psalmist:  “You have made them a little lower than gods” (Ps 8:5). 

The Eastern Fathers never tired of proclaiming this sentiment in the words:  God became man that we might become God-like.  The Son’s descent in the form of a human person would be completed in humanity’s ascent to God. This is the point of today’s solemnity, the Annunciation of the Lord.

The Incarnation at the Annunciation

When Mary of Nazareth accepted the angel’s message, she was chosen as the first of the Lord’s disciples in the New Covenant.  As mother of the Messiah, she shared his life and suffering as well as his victory. Her total trust was so unconditional that she accepted the mandate:  “You shall conceive and bear a son, and you shall name him Emmanuel, God-is-with-us.”  As Mary placed herself in the hands of Providence, so must we if we wish to be the Lord’s companions.

First Sunday of the Lord’s Passion

Today’s feast falls during the most solemn part of Lent when the liturgies ask us to focus intently on the Lord’s sufferings.  The universal Church will surely do this in the next week, the holiest of the year.  The entire emphasis will be on the Suffering Servant.   And so in preparation for Holy Week, we begin with a reflection on suffering itself.

Suffering

No one likes thinking about suffering, least of all one’s own.  Jesus too feared it though he accepted it as part of the divine plan.  In the Agony in the Garden, he prayed to be delivered from it and then added, “But not my will but yours be done.”  He submitted to suffering and death out of love for all sinful humanity.  No masochist here: he knew that only a crucified God could carry out the plan.

None of us escapes adversity.  Suffering does violence to a person both singly and in groups.  Suffering has no favorites and spares no one.   Without warning, it rudely interrupts the rhythm of human thought and action.  Its suddenness feels electric like a shock surging through the body.   It often immobilizes until reality settles in. 

Adversity takes the form of sudden death in a family, sudden loss of a job, sudden betrayal, or a sudden bad diagnosis from the doctor.  Then there’s the suffering we inflict on ourselves through bad choices or unfulfilled expectations.  We seek like prosecuting lawyers to blame others for the pain.

Why good people suffer amounts to a mystery.  Who of us dares to unravel it with satisfaction?  To whom do we go for consolation? Who can explain why suffering is clustered so unevenly over the world?  Christians, branded as infidels, have been put to death by fanatics in one country after the other.   Still, the Psalmist reminds us all that “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Ps  34:18).

Questioning God

Questions about suffering lead to questioning God.  Where is God in suffering? Surely an omnipotent and loving God does not permit suffering to happen.  Such questions haunt persons of faith and those of no faith because suffering affects us all.   Even in the darkest hours, the light of hope may break through the darkness. Adversity often holds within it an opportunity for something greater.  Beethoven composed his most profound works after he had completely lost his hearing.

If when all has been done to alleviate suffering, it still persists, a person either copes creatively or suffers it more intensely.  Grave suffering re-arranges one’s whole life. Accepting the struggle leads to maturity and to an integrated life.  

The Human Condition of Jesus

Adversity invites us to grow in compassion, wisdom and love.  Despite disappointment and even despair, we cling to Christian hope.  Jesus is the forerunner of redemptive suffering.  As the Second Adam, he suffers in solidarity with us all, not as a passive victim; nor does he seek it for its own sake.  Human malice did him in even making his life an appalling failure.  True, he suffered and died, but if that were the final story, we would celebrate a tragic hero: someone good but powerless.  On the contrary, he triumphed over death and was raised to resurrection glory by his Father. 

God’s Foolishness

More in The Way of Beauty

The Book of Exodus initiates us into God’s “foolishness.”  The Lord God commanded Moses to seek the release of his people from Pharaoh.  But God makes Pharaoh obstinate so that he refuses the request. Isn’t this madness? When Pharaoh refuses, all seems lost.  How can this be? God has master-minded the situation.  Moses is profoundly shaken. But God’s Providence saves the Jews in the miraculous Passover-Exodus event. God’s foolishness proves wiser than Moses’ doubt.   The lesson is clear.  Like the Jews, we do not save ourselves in the way we choose. We are saved by God’s power with our cooperation.

In Psalm 22, faithful persons suffering before a silent God place themselves in the Lord’s hands that will deliver them.  The Psalm closes with someone afflicted praising the Lord.  Likewise on the cross, Jesus enacted the meaning of Psalm 22 in his prayer to his silent Father. He had already foretold his last hours: “If I be lifted up, I will draw all things to myself” (Jn 12:32).  In the same manner, Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. counsels the Christian not to swoon in the Cross’s shadow but to climb the Cross in its light (The Divine Milieu, Harper Perennial, 73).

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