Christ's Affliction

Reflections on Christ’s Afflictions

In his Letter to the Colossians, St Paul tells us that in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His Body, that is the Church. Now in being told of something lacking in Christ’s afflictions we encounter a real challenge to interpretation. What exactly does St Paul mean?

Does he mean that the sufferings of Christ were in themselves insufficient for the redemption of the world? Does he mean that Christ’s sufferings have to be supplemented and completed by the suffering of others, in order for the work of salvation to be brought to fruition?

This way of interpreting Paul’s words seems on the face of it impossible. Everywhere in his writings Paul seems absolutely clear that it is Christ and Christ alone Who saves us, and that if anything is lacking it is in us, not in Him.

And so we must try to find another way of understanding what Paul says. An alternative interpretation might be as follows. We might suggest that he is referring to a lack, not in Christ’s sufferings, but in the sufferings of those who follow Him. The afflictions of Christ, in other words, will be interpreted as we might interpret a phrase like the discipleship of Christ, where this refers not to Christ’s own discipleship, but to the discipleship of those who belong to Him. So the afflictions of Christ would then mean the afflictions of those who follow Him, afflictions which come to them from following Him, precisely because they are following Him. Such sufferings would accordingly represent the cost of discipleship, and would be lacking to the extent that disciples fail to be what they are called to be. On this reading, Paul is declaring his determination to be a true disciple, and to remedy by his apostolic zeal what is lacking in those who half­heartedly refuse the sufferings that are involved in following Christ. In this way, the completeness of Christ’s own afflictions is preserved, and deficiency in suffering, together with whatever suffering is necessary to overcome such deficiency, is ascribed unambiguously to ourselves.

But we pay a price for such clarification. It proceeds by way of distinction and separation ­Christ on the one side, good and bad disciples on the other ­ and the question arises whether a pattern of such neatly defined difference is adequate to the subtlety and depth of Paul’s thinking. For the whole mystery, as he calls it, which Paul declares that he is sent to proclaim, is described by him, just a few lines later, as Christ in you. And this word­ – in –­ seems to speak, not of distinction and separation, but of intimacy, indeed of indwelling.

Now of course Paul shouldn’t be read as saying that there is no difference at all between Christ and those who follow Him. But what he does seem to be saying is that such difference is maintained only within the context of a mysterious union, a coming together of Christ and ourselves which is rooted in His Presence within us. And this must mean that, in relation to Christ, we are more than merely alongside or nearby­ more even than faithfully alongside or nearby – but are, in an ultimately inexplicable way, inhabited by Him. We can think here of what Paul says elsewhere, in his Letter to the Galatians, in which he claims that it is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives in me.

It seems inadequate, then, to speak only of the difference between Christ and the disciple. There is a difference here, but it is maintained only within a more encompassing union: a union in which the disciple, in his very interiority, seems to give way to Christ Himself.

But if we must speak, in this sense, of a Christ ­centred transformation of the disciple’s very self, what are the implications of this for Paul’s teaching about making up in his flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ? Perhaps, in the light of Paul’s understanding of the union between Christ and His disciples, we can begin to discern the way forward.

What we can say at once is that whether we ascribe the lack to Christ, and by implication not to ourselves, or to ourselves, and by implication not to Christ, we are in either case refusing the challenge of the Pauline teaching that Christ is not merely close at hand but actually within us. Because of this, the disciple has nothing which is exclusively his own; everything that is his own, even his afflictions, are touched by the indwelling Christ, who is more interior to the disciple than the disciple is to himself. We do not need to choose­ is this Christ, or is it me? For it is both, precisely in accordance with the mystery which St Paul announces: it is Christ and ourselves, for He is in us.

And what follows from this is that, if Christ Himself is within us, then He must be somehow within our afflictions as well, indwelling them as a dimension of His indwelling us. It is in the light of Christ somehow indwelling our afflictions that we must interpret what Paul says to us this morning.

But at once we encounter another problem. How does Christ indwell our afflictions? If the disciple suffers, does Christ suffer at the same time, just as, in the living disciple, it is at the same time Christ Himself who lives? This is difficult to affirm ­ for then Christ suffers still, suffers here and now, with me and in me ­ and how can that be?

We usually avoid this controversial implication by saying, not that Christ suffers in us, but rather that we suffer in Christ, in relation to Him. And what that is typically taken to mean is that we, who suffer now, can unite ourselves with Christ who suffered once and for all on the Cross. In our present, in other words, we are somehow able to have access to His past. But from another point of view, this too seems unsatisfactory. We want to avoid saying that Christ suffers still, here and now; but we also want to say more than that He suffered once upon a time, in such a way that His suffering and ours no longer seem to have any kind of internal connection. An internal connection, however we try to understand it, seems to be demanded by the Pauline teaching of a union between Christ and ourselves. We need to hold on to the thought that Christ is in us, indwelling us here and now, including in our present suffering. How, then, does He indwell that suffering, without here and now suffering Himself?

Let us try to approach the question from the following angle. We have seen that one of the consequences of saying that Christ is in us is that, as disciples, we have nothing that is exclusively our own: everything in us is in Christ, even what is most interior to us. But if it is true to say that we have nothing exclusively our own, this can only be because it is first and foremost true of Christ Himself. It is true of Christ, and therefore it is true also of His disciples. For we become His disciples by sharing in His own pattern of self ­emptying, in which everything is given, and nothing held back.

Christ Himself has nothing He keeps to Himself, and we can affirm this even of His afflictions. Everything in Him is gift, received from the Father and handed on to us. Everything is offered, opened out, towards others: nothing is retained or held back. And so when St Paul speaks of the afflictions of Christ, he speaks, even here, of a gift, the inner logic of which asks that it be communicated so that it can be completed. No gift can be communicated, no gift can be completed as a gift, until it is received. And in the case of the gift of Christ’s sufferings, these are received in the disciples when they suffer in turn ­when they allow, in their own sufferings, the completion of Christ’s sufferings within them; it is then, and only then, that Christ’s sufferings come to fruition. As St Paul puts it in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings.

And now we can see that, until this sharing comes about, there is indeed something lacking in the sufferings of Christ, just as there is, inescapably, something lacking in the gift that remains unreceived. But this lack is not an insufficiency. On the contrary, it is essential to the logic of the gift, an unavoidable dimension of its perfection as gift. Every gift lacks the capacity to complete itself, and therefore makes itself vulnerable to the freedom of the one to whom it is offered. Every gift yearns finally to be taken hold of, to be accepted by the one intended to receive it: it is in this aspiration, this incompleteness awaiting the consummation of being received, that the gift is most perfectly itself as something offered. And so we can say that Christ offers us His sufferings, and that we, by receiving them, complete in ourselves what they lack; the afflictions of Christ, as gifts, are completed only in being received in the suffering of His disciples; in their sufferings, Christ completes the gift of His own.

So now let us try to think this from a rather broader perspective. What Christ suffered on the Cross was not undergone in such a way as to seal it or lock it up, confining it within the temporal and spatial limits of His individual humanity. Think of His body on the Cross ­ was this a barrier, an unsurpassable difference, between Him and everyone else? We might think so. And yet after the Resurrection that very body becomes limitlessly sharable. It becomes sharable in the Eucharist, which extends the gift of His Body. And from the Eucharist it becomes sharable in the Church, which He teaches us also to recognize as His Body. In both ways, in Eucharist and in Church, the body on the Cross extends itself, expanding beyond its individual limits to communicate itself wherever it can find a home. We take this body into ourselves, and thereby become what we take in. Nourished by His sacramental Body we are formed as members of His mystical Body, all of this originating in and flowing from His body on the Cross, broken open in suffering, given for us and to us. His body on the Cross, the suffering Christ, is therefore not a merely historical reality, constrained by a particular time and place. From the moment of the Resurrection, and handed over in the Eucharist and in the Church, we must think of the suffering Christ trans-­historically: His suffering and death come to encompass potentially every time and place in which human life unfolds.

Now at the very heart of the Cross lies Christ’s endurance of what is most grievous in human suffering, whether as reality or as temptation. At the heart of the suffering of the Cross is human distance from God, our alienation from the Father. In enduring this alienation, Christ also transforms it, even to the lengths of descending to the realm of the dead, seeking out the extreme limit to which our alienation can extend. Suffering and transformation are here intimately linked and coextensive. In His Passion and Death, Christ sustains the maximum consequences of our distance from God, enfolding and surpassing them within His filial obedience and love. And this transformative suffering, because it is something He undergoes for us, is necessarily something He desires to enact in us. For the alienation is ours, and it is therefore in us that it must be transformed: not away from us, somewhere else, in the historical Cross, but from there into the here ­and- now of our very being.

This, we can now see, is the reason why the body of the Cross undergoes its limitless expansion in Eucharist and Church. Christ, as the One Who suffered and rose again, desires to be with us whenever and wherever we ourselves suffer ­ whenever and wherever, in the alienation of our fallenness, we stand in need of His transforming presence. Then His desire to suffer for us is completed in us. He makes His suffering interior to ours, by applying to it His endurance of His own. And just as it is the same body that suffered on the Cross and which afterwards rose from the dead, so His suffering always remains present to Him, even though He can suffer no more. It remains present to Him within the strength He conveys to us, as the weight which that strength measures and overcomes; His suffering remains present to Him as something which our own suffering recalls and brings to mind: we can say that our suffering reminds Him of His own, eliciting from within Him an experience and a knowledge He draws upon as He comes close to us, enabling Him to resonate, to vibrate, with whatever we ourselves must suffer, even as the strength to endure it is also communicated. As St Paul puts it in his Second Letter to the Corinthians: For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. It is in this way, by shared experience and shared consolation, that He indwells what we suffer.

And it is in this way, too, that the Paschal Mystery unfolds. That mystery is not simply His three days of suffering, death, descent and Resurrection, considered as over and done with, definitively in the past. But instead, those three days were ­ or are ­ mysteries of redemptive love, and they are therefore intrinsically open and self-­diffusive. His redemptive suffering began, indeed, in His own terrible solitude, but it completes itself, through Him, only in us.

By Fr Philip Cleevely, Cong. Orat.

St Philip's Seminary, Toronto
[email protected]