January 04, 2013

Christmas, the New Year and the problem of suffering

By Jon Leonetti *

My wife and I just had our first baby. It’s incredible how much a baby changes everything: when you eat, when you sleep, how you talk to each other, what you do with your time, and especially how you think about the world.

He was born on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Dec. 12, and he made this Christmas light years more meaningful than ever before. You simply can’t ever look at a Christmas crèche the same again once you’ve seen your own baby lying in his crib. It took me more than a week just to figure out how to swaddle him right. I wonder if St. Joseph had the same problem.

But things have been different for everyone this Christmas season. The tragedy at Newtown has shaken our nation to the core, and as a new dad I can tell you frankly: it scares me to death. This precious little guy that God just gave me--I want to keep him safe forever--and I certainly don’t want to have to worry about him being killed in kindergarten or first grade. The massacre happened on the Friday before Gaudete Sunday, two weeks before Christmas, when we’re supposed to be focusing on joy. Our priests were faced with the seemingly impossible task of preaching joy to a nation in mourning.

The shooting did more than freak me out, though. It got me thinking about life and the problem of suffering. Something like Sandy Hook is so big that it can easily overwhelm us, but we all know people suffering in big ways and small this Christmas and New Year. A friend whom I have known for quite some time recently had a close relative relapse into alcohol addiction. A priest-friend of mine is saying his Christmas Masses in his mother’s hospital room because she could go at any minute. And another buddy whom I have known and trusted for years and years and years has seemingly and inexplicably lost his faith. As Christmas comes to an end I will be honest and say it’s been hard at times to see what the cute little baby in the manger has to do with all of that.

But the truth is that the Baby in the manger has everything to do with those seemingly impossible circumstances. The Kid in the crib is God’s answer to everything, and especially to the problem of human suffering. In my last article I spoke of the circumstances for which Christ was born. Those circumstances were, well, less than perfect. The eternal Lord of the universe was born in a barn. I was nervous as my child was being born into the hands of a knowledgeable doctor who, along with the nurses, took incredible care of him. I can't imagine how Mary and Joseph felt.

In the middle of evening prayers just a few nights ago our newborn son began to cry. As new parents we did what anyone else would do – practically trip and fall over each other to get to him. As we changed his diaper and kissed his cheeks he immediately went back to sleep. I felt like a super hero coming in to save the day. I couldn't help but wonder, though, about those times I wouldn't be able to imminently solve his troubles. Oh, his mom or I will be there to bandage his skinned knees from sliding into home plate, or hold him tight when he has a stomach ache. But what about when he is older? What if I can't bring him the immediate relief he is looking for from a difficult situation? I guess it was then that I realized what all parents realize sooner or later; struggle, strife, and the deep sufferings in life, for our children, is inevitable.

The point I am trying to make, though, is rather than focus all my attention on shielding him from the sufferings he will endure, I should focus more of my time on teaching him how to suffer. And that begins with Jesus. Like all of us, Jesus cried at skinned knees and diaper rashes and colic and for milk. It is no accident that the baby is laid--offered even--in a manger of wood, for at the height of His glory He will again be offered up on the wood, and by His offering all of our sufferings both then and now take on a radically new meaning – if we allow it.

If suffering is just an unpleasant experience to be avoided at all costs then life really must be some cruel sort of joke, because most of us clearly get more than our share. But in the baby Jesus, and in the grown-up Jesus, and in the crucified and Risen Jesus, we see suffering transformed. Suffering itself, the greatest problem any of us ever have to struggle with, becomes the way in which we are set free, and set free not only from suffering, but sin and death and more. Jesus is God’s great surprise. In Jesus God not only sets right what went wrong in the Garden, but He gives us something better than we had started out with. We get life eternal with God, and we get turned into the kind of creatures that can live such a life for all eternity.

St. Paul asks the Colossians what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. The answer is, of course, nothing--except our own sufferings. Just as God stirs up in our hearts the desire to pray before we even know it ourselves, so also God longs to save us, not only by the sufferings of Jesus, but by offering our own sufferings as well. “Offer it up” is good advice so long as it isn’t given in order to encourage people to put up with mistreatment. But the grace to offer up our sufferings is the rightful inheritance of our baptism. It’s the way in which we participate in Christ’s priesthood, even as laypeople, and it perfects our participation in the Church’s great sacrifice of the Eucharist.

We should never be dismissive of other people’s sufferings. Even Jesus wept at the tomb of His friend Lazarus, and as we saw, that was no laughing matter. We suffer precisely because we love, which is why we suffer so much when we see the pain of our family and friends. This is also why Jesus suffered more than anyone else in history. I’m young enough that, alongside Sept. 11, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the nation in mourning quite as they were after the tragedy at Newtown, and even as people were asking where God was that day they knew the answer--right there with them, suffering, while weeping with the families even as He wept over His own. We should never see Christmas simply as a distraction from the worries of everyday life, or worse still as a way to escape the real suffering which so many of us have to deal with from time to time. Instead, Christmas should be the occasion of the world’s greatest hope--the hope that God will keep His promises. That hope then brings us into the New Year in a radically different way than ever before.

This past Christmas season should change the way we look at everything, but especially the way we look at suffering. While we should never go looking for suffering for it’s own sake, we are taught by the great martyrs and saints to accept whatever suffering God allows to come our way as opportunities for grace and growth in holiness. I know how good this sounds theoretically, but when looking at those who truly lived that heroic virtue practically, it really does make sense. Because it is only in the sufferings, both big and small, that we will grow to be more and more like the Infant in the Manger who is also the God on the Tree. The sufferings of Christ save us and our sufferings, and those are not only the agonies of the Passion on Good Friday, or even the mourning for Lazarus at the tomb; those begin right now, in the tears of a Baby not so different from those of my own.

Jon Leonetti is the author of two books entitled - Mission of the Family and Your God Is Too Boring. He currently travels the country giving keynote presentations and parish missions. Learn more by visiting jonleonetti.com

The Live Greater Foundation exists to encourage ordinary people to live in extraordinary ways. Learn more about their work at livegreaterfoundation.org.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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