Q. When I was reading evening prayer recently, I came across a quote about our filling up what is lacking in the suffering of Christ. For a few years in the early 1950s I was a Trappist monk at Gethsemani, and I have read a fair number of spiritual books since then. But now I am 80 years old and can’t seem to remember what that sentence means. What could possibly be lacking in the suffering of Christ? (Audubon, N.J.)
A. The passage to which you refer is taken from Paul’s Letter to the Colossians 1:24 and is translated in the Bible as follows: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church.”
This does not mean that the sacrifice of Jesus was incomplete. In fact, the Letter to the Hebrews says in 10:14: “For by one offering he has made perfect forever those who are being consecrated.”
What it means is that, for whatever reason, God has chosen to involve us, as followers of Jesus, in the work of redemption. Pope Pius XII said in his 1943 encyclical “Mystici Corporis Christi” (in No. 44): “This is a deep mystery … that the salvation of many depends on the prayers and voluntary penances which the members of the mystical body of Jesus Christ offer for this intention.”
Paul was writing to the people of Colossae while he was in prison, one of his several forced confinements for the sake of the Gospel. Except for the night between Holy Thursday and Good Friday, Jesus never suffered that same indignity.
So in a real sense, Paul was adding his particular sacrifice to that of Christ. By accepting our sufferings and setbacks willingly, the mystery of Christ’s passion continues in us and our own lives become redemptive.
Q. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable exchanging a handshake when it is time for the sign of peace, or I might have a cold and I don’t want to chance spreading germs. How do I — politely — not shake someone’s hand? (City of origin withheld)
A. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, which is the church’s official guide to the celebration of Mass, has this to say about the sign of peace in No. 82: “There follows the rite of peace by which … the faithful express to each other their ecclesial communion and mutual charity before communicating in the sacrament.”
It goes on to explain that the particular manner of the exchange is left to the discretion of national conferences of bishops “in accordance with the culture and customs of the people.”
That guideline is worth quoting, not only in that it denotes the purpose of the gesture, but because it shows that the sign of peace is an ordinary and expected part of the Mass. In the U.S., the gesture most commonly used is a handshake (which is far less expressive than in the early days of the church, when the custom in the western Mediterranean world was to “greet one another with a holy kiss.”)
If you are under the weather and concerned about spreading germs, it would certainly be acceptable for you to greet others simply with a word of peace, perhaps with a whispered explanation, “Sorry, I have a cold.”
It sounds to me, though, that in your case, you may feel uncomfortable shaking hands with a stranger even when you’re not sick. You should not feel compelled to do so. I would suggest, so that you’re not misunderstood, that you take care to greet those surrounding you with a warm smile and a wave.
Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at email@example.com and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, N.Y. 12208.