By Cardinal Justin Rigali
Archbishop of Philadelphia
As we enter Holy Week, it is most appropriate that we reflect on the sufferings of Jesus and our ability to unite our own sufferings with His.
Proving His understanding
I recall being told something very interesting about a family-owned and run business. This business is now in its fourth generation and the owners could certainly assume their positions of leadership without coming up “through the ranks.” However, this business is not conducted in this manner. As each generation came along, they were made to begin with very basic tasks, such as sweeping the floors and carrying heavy loads. Only after successfully passing through all of these fundamental tasks for a period of time did they assume positions of leadership in the company.
The present senior member of the family explained the reason for this. He said that using this system enables the future owners and managers to know and understand what all the other employees are doing and it creates a good spirit within the company because the workers know that they are not being asked to do anything that the owners have not done before them.
Perhaps you are already beginning to see why I am making use of this image. We know that the all-knowing God has a perfect awareness of who and what each of us is. We also know that He could have chosen many ways in order to bring about the salvation of the human race after our fall from grace through the sin of our first parents. However, the Eternal Father chose to send His Son, the Eternal Son of the Eternal Father, to become “like us in all things but sin.” We might say that His twofold purpose was similar to the example we just gave: to show us, using visible actions we could understand, that He shares our sufferings, and to fill us with hope and confidence in the knowledge that we can unite our sufferings with His.
The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” reminds us that “Christ’s whole life is a mystery of redemption. Redemption comes to us above all through the blood of his cross, but this mystery is at work throughout Christ’s entire life:
* already in his Incarnation through which by becoming poor he enriches us with his poverty;
* in his hidden life which by his submission atones for our disobedience;
* in his word which purifies its hearers;
* in his healings and exorcisms by which ‘he took our infirmities and bore our diseases’;
* and in his Resurrection by which he justifies us” (CCC, 517).
Not only recipients but also sharers
Through our own human experiences, we know that while it is pleasant to receive help and favors, we do not want to always be at the receiving end. If we have a healthy attitude towards life, we want to share in some way in what is done in order to bring about those things which benefit us. In fact, even in the human order, there will be a sense of incompleteness and frustration if we consistently receive without giving or without doing anything to help bring about that which benefits us.
Knowing us so intimately and wanting to preserve for us the dignity with which we were created, Jesus allows us to share in His own sufferings. He allows us to do our small part in order to cooperate with the work of our salvation! Far from this being seen as a punishment, it is an immense compliment.
We are all familiar with the words of Saint Paul, which sum up his following of what Jesus has asked of us. He writes: “In my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24). Does this mean that the work of Jesus was insufficient for our own salvation and that of the entire world?
Saint Alphonsus Liguori answers this question for us: “Christ’s passion was entirely sufficient to save all. However, for the merits of the Passion to be applied to us, we need to cooperate by patiently bearing the trials God sends us, so as to become like our head, Christ” (“Thoughts on the Passion”, 10).
Mental and emotional suffering
At this point, I would like to pay special attention to the mental suffering of our Lord-which is often ignored-because it is one of the ways in which we also unite our sufferings with His, even though it sometimes seems to be less obvious. We all know the account of the agony of Jesus in the Garden, which we meditate upon every time we recite the first Sorrowful Mystery of the Rosary.
During that time we are told that Jesus’ sweat became “as drops of blood.” This is a true physical phenomenon, which can occur when a person’s mental anguish becomes so great that the blood vessels under the skin break, resulting in what looks to be the sweating of blood. This mental anguish of Jesus, as He saw before Him all the sins of the world and the ingratitude of so many down through the ages, took place even before His physical sufferings.
For many of us, mental and emotional sufferings may be greater than our physical sufferings. Ingratitude, disappointment, loneliness, worry, insecurity, betrayal and so many other emotions play upon our minds. As long as we are not the cause of these situations, we can use them as a means of joining in the similar sufferings of Jesus. Too often, we forget that His sufferings, and our sharing in them, are not only physical, but mental and emotional as well.
“In order to build up his body, the church”
We recall that Saint Paul also places personal suffering, in union with Jesus, in the context of the community of Christ’s Body, the Church.
In his Apostolic Letter on the mystery of Christian suffering, Pope John Paul II wrote: “Faith in sharing in the suffering of Christ brings with it the interior certainty that the suffering person ‘completes what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions’; the certainty that in the spiritual dimension of the work of Redemption he is serving, like Christ, the salvation of his brothers and sisters. Therefore he is carrying out an irreplaceable service. In the Body of Christ, which is ceaselessly born of the Cross of the Redeemer, it is precisely suffering permeated by the spirit of Christ’s sacrifice that is the irreplaceable mediator and author of the good things which are indispensable for the world’s salvation. It is suffering, more than anything else, which clears the way for the grace which transforms human souls. Suffering, more than anything else, makes present in the history of humanity the powers of the Redemption” (Salvifici Doloris, 27).
This is why an inspanidual, who may seem to be physically cut off from the greater community of the Church by sickness or suffering, can actually perform a great service for the Church in the offering of his or her suffering in union with Jesus.
I hope that those who may be reading this who are sick or suffering in any way, and who may not be able to take part in the great liturgical celebrations of Holy Week in their own parish churches, may be conscious of the fact that they can be a great part of the work of Redemption. You can be an active and essential part in the work of bringing salvation to the entire world.
Jesus has not only suffered and died for our salvation, He has also enabled us to share mysteriously in that work by sharing in His sufferings. By uniting both our mental and physical sufferings with His, we not only do what Jesus asks, we fulfill what He has actually commanded: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
25 March 2010