Isaiah 53:10 – 11; Heb 4:14-16; Mk 10: 35-45
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Is suffering inevitable? Is it God’s will? Can anything good come out of it?
In one way or another, all three readings invite us to think about the mystery of suffering. In the first reading, taken from one of the “Suffering Servant” passages in the book of Isaiah, we are told that suffering is redemptive: “Through his suffering, my servant shall justify many.” The author of Hebrews identifies Jesus as our “High Priest” who, because of his own sufferings, can “sympathize with our weakness.” Finally, in a veiled reference to his own Passion, Jesus delivers a sobering warning to James and John that “The cup that I drink, you will drink”. It would appear, based on Jesus’ words, that suffering is an inevitable part of discipleship.
While all of these passages either implicitly or explicitly suggest that suffering and holiness are sometimes (often?)intertwined, none of them require us to believe that suffering is ever God’s will. To say that God can bring good out of suffering, or that suffering can become the means by which grace enters into our lives and our world, is not the same as saying that suffering was ever meant to be a part of God’s plan.
The Franciscans have, from their beginnings, understood the Passion Account in the larger context of the Incarnation. Jesus’ death on the cross, according to this point of view, did not occur because God demanded a blood sacrifice for the sins of the human race. His death was a consequence of Jesus’ uncompromising committment to Love running afoul of certain Jewish leaders and the Roman occupiers and their uncompromising committment to keeping Power. The entirety of the Incarnation – the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus – is the fullest expression of God’s love for human beings and for creation. The Passion Account can only be understood within the context of this larger story.
Where I think all of this theological musing has the most meaning for us is how it affects the way we see our own suffering. To be specific: When my mother passed away one month ago, it felt as if someone or something tore an enormous hole in the fabric of my life. The emptiness and pain of this loss remains with me. Yet what also remains with me, and what I continue to come back to in prayer, is a question: Could this hole be more than an empty place? Might this hole also be an opening through which God’s grace can stream even more directly and powerfully into my life?
I don’t have any answers. But I do think that the healthiest approach to suffering we can muster is one that does not seek it nor glorifies it but, when it comes, attempts to befriend it.
Jim Philipps (3rd millennium pilgrim)
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