Reflections on Christ and Suffering

How does God show Himself? He shows Himself in Elijah, recognized as a man of God, and He shows Himself in Christ, recognized as a prophet and as a visitation of the Divine. But we see in Elijah and in Christ, despite the kinds of intimacy with God which they enjoy, that neither stands apart from human suffering; on the contrary, they share in it; and it is this very fact which, in the fulness of time, will be seen to be crucial. Their solidarity in suffering is not in tension with their intimacy with God, but on the contrary it attests to it. Solidarity in suffering will be recognized as the profoundest sign that God is present to them and, through them, present to the world. We might say that they bear the weight of God, and to bear this weight is not just to be alongside those who suffer, but is to go all the way, and to suffer with them.

So Elijah, the man of God, has been cast into wilderness and drought, fed only by ravens and drinking from a dwindling stream. He encounters the widow of Zarapheth and finds in her one utterly impoverished as he is, gathering sticks to prepare a meal which she anticipates will be her last. Later he encounters her dead son. Elijah and they share and meet in deprivation: and it is in deprivation, in the kind of encounter that only the poor can have with the poor, that God is unveiled. The same is true of Christ’s encounter with the widow of Nain and her dead son. This is, first and foremost, an encounter within suffering humanity, as the suffering of the Word made flesh encounters the suffering flesh He became; and in this encounter, in this co-­suffering, God is disclosed. He is not met as one who, from afar, offers a sovereign and superior relief. He  relieves human suffering from within, by having first established solidarity with it, transforming it only in and through embracing it.

And this Divine impulse ­- let us call it Love ­- reaches its consummation in Christ, Who is not just a messenger of the Divine, like Elijah, but brings God Himself, the Son of the Father incarnate in the Holy Spirit. And it is precisely because of this, because Christ isn’t a representative of God but is God in Person, that His embrace of human suffering is more radical than Elijah’s, both more extraordinary and more encompassing.

It is more extraordinary because human suffering, as such, is alien to God, as it can never be to a man like Elijah. It is something God can encounter only by throwing Himself entirely outside of Himself, emptying Himself into what is other than Himself, for the sake of those whom He will find there. And it is more encompassing because, when God empties Himself in this way, He fashions an embrace of suffering in excess of what any man, even a ‘man of God’ like Elijah, could achieve. When God casts Himself into our flesh, the human life that He leads, seized by the infinity of the Divine, opens and offers itself to all humanity, so that the suffering which He endures is not just one instance of human suffering, but establishes a pattern to which human suffering of every kind can be conformed. All human suffering, without remainder, is capable of participating in the pattern of the suffering of the man Who is God, so that each one of us, in suffering, can suffer fruitfully in union with Him.

This is the meaning of St Paul’s astonishing claim, in his Letter to the Colossians, that in his own sufferings he is making up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. To understand this, we have first to acknowledge that it is of course quite true that Christ did not suffer in every conceivable way or, necessarily, to the greatest possible degree, and in that sense we might think that kinds or intensities of suffering which Christ did not undergo add to, and so help to complete, what His own sufferings lacked. But that way of thinking, bizarrely, treats suffering purely quantitatively, and is certainly not what St Paul intended ­ as if the point of Christianity were to maximize kinds and degrees of suffering. No ­ St Paul understands perfectly well that in the true sense Christ’s sufferings lacked nothing at all. They constitute the uniquely exemplary and  ruitful pattern of all human suffering, since they were born in obedience and abandonment to the Father and in expression of redemptive love for the world. And yet, St Paul teaches us, this pattern is meant to be shared. Christ not only suffers for the world, but in suffering He opens and offers Himself to the world, precisely so that, in its suffering, the world can share in His work of reconciliation to the Father. And in this sense, something is indeed lacking in Christ’s sufferings because, precisely as open and offered, they beg our participation in the pattern which they establish. The point is not to demand that the world suffer. On the contrary, suffering is simply inescapable; what Christ seeks is that the suffering of the world should come to share in the pattern of His suffering, and thereby draw us, not only as beneficiaries but above all as  participants, into the mystery of Divine Love.

The mystery of Divine Love is a mystery of God’s solidarity with the human condition. The Gospels offer us intense evocations of this extraordinary and encompassing solidarity of the Divine with the human. The Son of God lives the frailty of the human condition, the inescapable truth of our vulnerability and dependence, in an absolute, unreserved commitment towards humanity and towards the Father. He comes before us as an itinerant, as moving and being moved from place to place, with nowhere to call His own: not only nowhere exterior, and accordingly homeless, but also with no interior space, no opportunity for withdrawal and quiet self­possession, except on those occasions when, pulling Himself away, He confronts, in obedience and abandonment, the silence and emptiness of prayer, calling upon a Father Who does not reliably show Himself, any more than to us, and Who finally, on the Cross, seems to disappear definitively. He comes before us as harried by the demands upon Him, with who knows what feelings of being incapable of answering to the kaleidoscope of human needs, including His own, which press upon Him, unless by recourse to the One to Whom He owes Himself entirely, the Father on Whom He depends for everything. And He comes before us as affected, struck, struck down even, by encounters with the misery that, first, surrounds Him, and then also, especially at the end, comes to inhabit Him. He exercises a compassion and a responsibility always threatening to overwhelm Him, until at last it does, transforming itself, on the Cross, into an entirely inescapable weight, identical to His own weight, a weight He can no longer bear. Helpless, He goes to dwell among the dead. From this extremity, only the hidden Father, to Whom He clings, can rescue Him.

In Christ, the infinity of the Divine Son empties itself into the finitude of a single human life, and that single human life, bearing the infinite dimensions of the Son Who lives it, expands to invite shelter to every human life, in all its dimensions; and so, at one and the same time, Christ brings God to all humanity and all humanity to God. Christ narrates, He tells the story, of both man and God. He shows us what God looks like when He throws Himself into human being, emptying Himself into our existence and becoming Himself in us. And he shows us what we look like, when we unreservedly embrace the condition that is ours and live the truth of our radical dependence upon the Father. He wants us to find Him, and thereby and above all to find the Father. But we can do so only if He finds us first, and so He comes looking for us exactly where we are, bringing Himself to us so that He can bring us to Himself, and thence to the One Who sent Him. The human place, the horizon of our finitude in all its forms, even our deepest sufferings, is therefore not to be evaded or disdained. On the contrary, the human situation, in every one of its dimensions, has become inestimably significant, irreplaceably precious. He finds us there, so that, even there, we can find Him. It is here and now -­ in all the anguish of human life ­- that we must call upon Him and wait for Him, because it is only here and now -­ wherever that is ­- and not elsewhere, that He comes and shows Himself, carrying us and taking us with Him.

By Fr Philip Cleevely, Cong. Orat.

St Philip's Seminary, Toronto
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