With the season of Lent on the horizon, we are reminded to reflect on the mystery of suffering. Lent is an invitation, which particularly calls us to journey with Christ on the path of the Paschal Mystery. In a world filled with pleasure seeking and avoiding any type of suffering, this might seem to be quite countercultural, or to the “good feeling pop-psychologist” it may even be counterproductive, or even some form of masochistic downtrodden depression. But, whatever the case, in all honesty it is a bit odd. At least, that is unless you know what you’re getting into. A few questions come to mind as Lent approaches: why was redemption necessary? Why did Jesus suffer? And what is the point of suffering?
Redemption. This is where we must begin. But what are we being redeemed from? With the fall of man in the original sin of Adam and Eve, they effectively isolated themselves from complete relationship with God. Sin is a rejection of this relationship with God because it presupposes that God’s relationship is not good enough. Instead, Adam and Eve wanted to make themselves gods. But even in this ultimate rejection of God and ultimately his love, God did not give up on human beings. This is where the mystery of redemption comes into play. Things were made wrong, and they need to be set right again. In this allegory from Genesis, the fall of Adam and Eve could not have been a surprise for God. If it were, God would not be all knowing; he would not be God. This forces us to ask a further question, what then was the purpose of creation?
God did not create us to be sinful failures. God created us for quite the opposite reason: he created us to share in his love. This love of God, is not some happy feeling, it does not seek its own interests, it is entirely self-giving, it is kenotic. Kenosis, is a Greek term that means complete and total self emptying, and paradoxically, it is in this emptying that one finds fulfillment. Kenosis is the love of God between the Father and the Son, united in the bond of the Holy Spirit; the Father completely gives of himself to the Son, and the Son completely gives of himself to the Father. This is the basis of Trinitarian theology, and I am by no means an expert, so I will not try to explain this mystery any further. However, this is also where we find the answer to our questions. In the Paschal Mystery, we find this kenotic love articulated at its highest degree in the course of human history. This event happened in history, in time. That is, this event of relationship between Father and Son, which encompasses all time, has penetrated into chronological time and opened up for us a way to enter into it.
The field of Theological Anthropology tells us that the purpose for creation is for participation in the Paschal Mystery. Quite literally, we were made for the Paschal Mystery. Whether or not you agree with this statement, let us explore some of the consequences that come with this statement, and perhaps there we may encounter some answers to our questions. This statement begins to make sense when we view it in light of the question of suffering. We suffer because we are separated from God, and yet, suffering leads us closer to God and eventually into the discovery of love. Suffering is not a sign of despair, it is a sign of hope. Without suffering we would have nothing to hope for. Without hope, there would only be suffering.
It is the victory of the cross, that we place our hope in. This is the great mystery of all of history: that in complete freedom Jesus chose to suffer and give of himself completely, so much so that he died, and by doing so transcended death and opened up a new way, the way of resurrection. The first Adam ate from the tree of life and rejected relationality. The second Adam, Jesus, died on the tree of life and offered redemption to relationality. This “new way” the way of resurrection is the way that we are to travel. Quite particularly, the way of resurrection is the way of post-crucifixion. Jesus appeared to the Twelve bearing the marks of his crucifixion. His glorified body, bore the marks that made resurrected love possible. St. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 15:35-49) talks about this mystery of receiving the glorified body, in fact in the way he speaks about it, it is a requirement for heaven. This presupposes that in some way we are all destined to suffer with Christ and bear the marks of the cross. Perhaps this might explain why some saints have experienced stigmata here on earth; they entered so profoundly into the Paschal Mystery with Christ that they were able to experience beforehand what awaited them in death, before entering into heaven.
Whatever the case, the point of Jesus’ suffering was nothing short of the redemption of the world. In Lent, we are called to reflect on the suffering of Christ, with the hope of encountering a deeper understanding of the mystery of redemption. Our suffering is never a burden to be carried on our own, it is always a suffering with. We suffer with Christ because of sin: not only for our own sins, but for the effect of sin that we feel from other’s sins. All sin has consequences, some more than others, but in some way sin is always a furthering of the broken relationship that we have with God. If sin is the destruction of relationality, repentance and reconciliation is the embracing of relationality. This relationship can only be repaired through choosing love. The choice is ours. God has already gone before us and prepared the way, we only have to choose it. Pope Benedict XVI, in his book In the Beginning… stated: “We can be saved only when he from whom we have cut ourselves off takes the initiative with us and stretches out his hand to us. Only being loved is being saved, and only God’s love can purify damaged human love and radically reestablish the network of relationships that have suffered from alienation” (Benedict XVI, pg 74).
So, as Lent approaches let us prepare ourselves to reflect on the mystery of suffering. The Church asks us to enter into this mystery by way of prayer, almsgiving, and mortification. The way we carry these out are up to us, but in case you haven’t figured out in what way you are going to fulfill these requests here are some easy options. Prayer: challenge yourself to go to mass every day; pray a rosary every day; pray the Liturgy of the Hours; make a holy hour, if not every day, perhaps you can challenge yourself to once a week. Don’t set the bar too high, because you will only set yourself up for failure. Start small, and don’t be afraid to exceed your expectations when you feel called to. Almsgiving: this is not just putting money in the collection basket on Sunday, but you can put money in the poor box (this does not go to your parish funds like the collection basket does), or I would encourage you to look up a charity that stands for something you believe in and make a donation to them. Mortification: this is more usually carried out in the way of “giving up something for Lent.” But, it is not restricted to just giving something up, you can carry this out in many ways. I don’t suggest wearing a hairshirt or whipping yourself, but a more prudent way could be to fast regularly throughout the season on different days of the week.
However you decide to participate this Lent, always remember why you are doing this. There will be plenty of temptation to give up and stop doing what you’re doing, but I encourage you to stay the course. In my life, in the years that I have faithfully entered into Lent and authentically carried out my challenges of prayer, almsgiving, and mortification, I have had the most fruitful Easters. The joy of the resurrection is worth the cost of suffering that it takes to get there. So let us not be afraid to walk with Christ in the coming weeks, in order to prepare ourselves to experience more profoundly this year the love and joy of God on Easter Sunday.