One of the things with which we so often struggle is to understand our condition in a fallen world. Each of us, in our own way, has experienced the pain and suffering so often encountered as one journeys through this world on our road to heaven. The road to heaven is a way of suffering and sacrifice; and it leads directly through the cross of Christ. If we are to find and stay on this path, this is a truth that we must come to embrace.
In a passage from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus explains to His apostles that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer at the hands of the authorities… that He will need to lay down His life. Peter, so like many in the world – maybe like you and like me – has a different view. Peter objects to what he hears and the Gospel tells us that he takes Jesus aside and actually rebukes Him! And so, Jesus who had just previously called Peter Rock now addresses him as Satan. Jesus accuses Peter of thinking like human beings and not as God. He speaks of the necessity of the Cross… in His life and in ours.
Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.
Then Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay all according to his conduct.” (Matthew 16:21-27)
Who among us would not wish to run from suffering and pain? Surely we can relate, even to the words of Peter to Christ! Why? Because we do not think as the Father does.
In a world gone wrong
But let’s look at this more closely. To do so, we have to back up and see the condition of this broken world that came out of the fall of mankind. We have to grasp how and why we were created.
Freely and out of His infinite goodness, God created the universe and placed His special creation, man and woman, in it. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, were given what is known as the preternatural gifts of bodily immortality, integrity and infused knowledge. We were not to experience physical death, our will and appetites were in balance with the moral order written into our nature, and we knew who we were, who God is and the purpose of our lives. In the Fall, Adam and Eve lost all of that and because they no longer possessed it, they could not hand it down to their descendants, thus we lost those gifts too.
But most of all, we lost the divine life in our souls, our share of God’s very life – what we call sanctifying grace. Simply put, we were no longer in communion with God for Whom we were made. Without that, we lacked authenticity – we no longer were who we were made to be. Sin, that rejection of God by man, brought death and it explains our suffering condition… our pain… our sorrow… our restlessness.
God works to restore communion
The story of Salvation History is the story of God’s work to restore that lost communion that was so easily enjoyed prior to sin. In his wonderful teaching series on the Eucharist, Fr. Robert Barron quotes the Thomist theologian, Matthew Levering, “In a world gone wrong, there is no communion without sacrifice.”
We can see that is true just from our own experience. Whenever we have done something that is really wrong there is often pain in the consequences of that act. For example, if I do something unjust or insensitive that hurts someone I love, the repair of that action is often painful and difficult. The damage that results from a really serious wrong can take a lifetime to repair. Who hasn’t experienced this?
So has it been with our relationship with God. Original Sin broke our communion with God. Our serious sins continue to break that communion. Even our “small” sins damage it.
So, over the course of Salvation History, God has fathered His children, that is, He has shown us who have sinned, what we must do to repair the damage. And He has made it possible for us to be restored to communion with Him. We must remember that He has done this for us, not for Himself; God does not need us as He is complete without us. Out of infinite love and goodness He created us and out of that same infinite love and goodness He works to restore us to communion with Him.
Sacrifice is necessary
Sacrifice is not necessary because God says so, rather, God says so because it is necessary. Let me repeat that…pain and suffering and sacrifice are not necessary because God says so, rather, God says so because they are necessary. Our ways are not God’s ways. We are not the teacher, but the student. We are not the doctor, but the patient. That is what Jesus explains to Peter when Peter wants Jesus to avoid suffering and sacrifice. He says that Peter does not know and understand what is necessary. Pain, suffering, sacrifice and death in the world are not of God, they are the consequences of sin in the world and they affect both the righteous and the unrighteous.
I do not have time to even summarize each of the successive covenants entered into with mankind by God, but realize this… each covenant involved sacrifice on the part of mankind. “In a world gone wrong, there is not communion without sacrifice.” When the time was full, God entered into His creation and became man. He mediated the new and everlasting covenant that would make possible the restoration of communion. Jesus came to “make all things new.” He did this by offering Himself as the perfect sacrifice. He took on all our sin and did for us, what we were incapable of doing.
God entered the world to die on the cross. By the re-presentation of that sacrifice in Holy Mass through the actions of the priest and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are fed spiritually with the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ in what is rightly called Holy Communion. Peter did not understand this yet. Like so many of us, he sought to avoid sacrifice.
The Cross does not eliminate suffering
The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross restores communion, but it does not eliminate our suffering and the need for our sacrifice. It has opened the door to heaven, but we must continue to journey through this world on the way of the cross to heaven. The Cross gives meaning to our suffering.
Must we suffer then, without recourse? Is it wrong to seek to avoid suffering? To answer that question, we can look at examples of how we suffer in this life.
- Physical Pain from Illness – Few of us enjoy a trip to the dentist. But if I have a cavity that has reached a nerve, I have a toothache. Must I simply endure this pain for the sake of communion and not seek to avoid it? No, it is morally appropriate and might even be necessary to have that condition treated and repaired by a dentist.
- Pain of Loss When a Loved One Dies – Everyone will eventually experience the heartbreak that accompanies the death of a close friend or family member. Sometimes the pain is acute and takes much time to heal. In these times, whether death is unexpected and sudden or the result of a long and painful illness, we might wonder why God permits such a thing. In this we must realize that this is the condition of a fallen world – God does not desire death or even our suffering for suffering sake. Suffering is not an intrinsic good. It is the consequence of sin in the world that affects both saint and sinner. Time heals and sometimes it is necessary to seek help to be healed of the hurt; and this too is morally appropriate.
- Suffering for the Good of the Other – Love, as God intends us to love, is not an emotion or feeling, it is an act of the will; it is a choice. St. Thomas Aquinas taught that love is “willing the good of another.” Sometimes this act of will is easy and relatively free of pain, but it always involves some degree of sacrifice. If God is love and the source of our joy, then we can see how dying to self – giving up some piece of ourselves for the good of another – brings us joy, even in the midst of suffering. I can think of no better examples than that of a mother and father, who sacrifice for their children; than that of soldiers who freely give even their lives in a just cause so that we may be free; than that of firefighters and police who, like those on 9/11, are willing to march into the hell of burning buildings and chaotic circumstances to save the lives of others… than that of Jesus Christ who willingly laid down His life on the Cross for you and me.
This is what loves does and sometimes it hurts tremendously and it always involves dying to self. This is our condition in a fallen world. But after the cross there comes the resurrection – in that we have our joy and our hope. When we properly understand suffering in the world, then we will be able to embrace our suffering and join it to the Cross to advance in holiness and strengthen our communion.
Listen to these words of Christ, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life.”
May we be always open to God’s ways and not cling to this world but strive for the world to come.
Into the deep…
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Into the Deep by Deacon Mike Bickerstaff is a regular feature of the The Integrated Catholic Life™ and usually appears on Sundays and occasionally on Tuesdays or Wednesdays.
Deacon Mike Bickerstaff is the Editor in chief and co-founder of the The Integrated Catholic Life™. A Catholic Deacon of the Roman Rite for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Deacon Bickerstaff is assigned to St. Peter Chanel Catholic Church where he is the Director of Adult Education and Evangelization.
He is a co-founder of the successful annual Atlanta Catholic Business Conference; the Chaplain of the Atlanta Chapter of the Woodstock Theological Center’s Business Conference; and Chaplains to the St. Peter Chanel Business Association and co-founder of the Marriages Are Covenants Ministry, both of which serve as models for similar parish-based ministries.
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