Suffering shows God’s purpose

Often in this series of reflections on Contemplate—Launch Out! we have paused to consider the face of Christ. The Pope’s meditation on the Saviour’s face in Novo Millennio Ineunte (24) reminds us that faces show our souls to the world, they show who we really are. We see in Jesus’s face who he really is: we see the Christ, the Son of God.

Our Lord did not himself need to look in a mirror to know this. He knew even as a little boy that he was the Son of God. ‘How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s affairs?’ (Lk 2: 49), he said when only twelve. Though he honoured his mother and foster-father, he received much greater honour in turn from them. As Mary knew from the time of her Annunciation, her child is also her God and her Saviour.

Among the most solemn Gospel passages are those that give precious glimpses into this relationship between Jesus and his Father. Particularly intense are the episodes leading up to his torture and death. We see him in Gethsemane asking the Father to remove the coming ordeal if possible (Mk 14: 36). Then on the cross he suffers the full abandonment of death: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Mk 15: 34). Yet this is not a death without hope: ‘at the very moment when he identifies with our sin, “abandoned” by the Father, he “abandons” himself into the hands of the Father’ (26).

This is surely the great mystery of our lives too — the ‘mystery within the mystery’, as the Pope calls it. We struggle to resist the Father, putting obstacles in the path of his love. Jesus completely understood how we resist and his response is to clear the path for us. He suffers so that we can get back to the Father — but also so that we now have a new way to understand our own suffering.

Christian suffering need not be wasted. Our world hates suffering and will do anything to avoid it. But Christ teaches that where there is suffering, there is hope. The world was not redeemed by fun or physical comfort but by a death.

The Pope reminds us we are not alone in the mystery of suffering. We have those physically around us, and the saints who have gone before us. Saint Therese of Lisieux wrote: ‘In the Garden of Olives Our Lord was blessed with all the joys of the Trinity, yet his dying was no less harsh. It is a mystery, but I assure you that, on the basis of what I myself am feeling, I can understand something of it.’ As Therese says, if Christ who knew the joys of the Trinity suffered, it is certain we too will suffer.

We all ask ourselves ‘why me?’ when we find out that we are sick, or a friend has been killed in a car accident, or a relationship collapses. The American tennis player Arthur Ashe, reflecting on his own experience of contracting AIDS through a blood transfusion, said: ‘Why me? Why not?’ It is always someone: someone’s child, someone’s husband, someone’s best friend, so why not me today?

We are all part of the same human family; we will all suffer and one day die. Yet we experience love and joy and peace even in such a world. The loveless world crucifies those who show love, but it can never kill love itself. It is Christian joy that triumphs. The face of sorrows is also the transfigured and glorified face of the risen Christ.

+ Denis J. Hart,
Archbishop of Melbourne.
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