05 November 2009

What is the point of suffering?

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (18 October 2009)
World Mission Sunday

Readings: Is 53:10-11; Ps 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22; Heb 4:14-16; Mk 10:35-45

The brothers James and John’s vainglorious request provides a foil, a counterpoint, to the main message of the readings this Sunday. In the verses immediately prior to the request of Zebedee’s sons, the disciples heard Jesus predict His own suffering, but the brothers could only see how this could be an opportunity to gain honor for themselves.

Last Sunday, Pope Benedict honored five new saints. Perhaps, the more famous among them was Fr. Damian. He left Belgium to go on a mission to Hawaii at age 23. While there he got to know of the leper colony in the island of Molokai. He volunteered to minister on the island and spent four years there (which turned out to be the last four years of his life). He came first as a missionary to the lepers, and eventually ministered as a leper himself.

St. Damian of Molokai’s example is a fitting allegory to Christ’s incarnation. But there is nothing glamorous or prestigious in his life choices. Pope Benedict says: “Not without fear and loathing, Fr Damian made the choice to go on the island of Molokai in the service of lepers who were there, abandoned by all.”

Even now, Christ’s – and that of His faithful disciples’ – view of honor and greatness is still a stark contrast from that of many. For Christ glory can be achieved only by way of suffering.

The First Reading from Isaiah 53 tells of the coming of the “suffering servant”.

The Second Reading from Hebrew 4 describes Jesus as our high priest who is able to “sympathize with our weaknesses, (and) one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.”

The Gospel ends with: “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 4,45).

So what do we make of suffering? How should a Christian view suffering?

1. It is an opportunity to follow the way of Christ.

In the Gospel passage the Lord asks James and John: “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” It is an invitation not just to follow His words, but his very life. In fairness to the brothers, they did drank the cup that Jesus drank, each in his own way.

Pope Benedict in his homily during last Sunday’s canonization rites noted that all five saints followed the invitation of Christ: “Come, follow me.” They were a diverse group who followed the same calling, each in their own way: a bishop-martyr; a young mystic monk; a priest founder of a religious congregation; a missionary; and a nun who earned sainthood taking care of the elderly.

Jn 15,20 states: “Remember the words I said to you: A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you too.”

2. It is a privilege to be asked to help build the Body of Christ.

1 Corinthians 12:26 states: “And if one member suffer any thing, all the members suffer with it: or if one member glory, all the members rejoice with it.”

The tyrants of ancient times thought they could discourage the early Christians by the martyrdom of their brethren. They were proven wrong. The witness of martyrs inflamed the hearts of the early Christians and fostered the spread of the faith.

The tyrants of recent times thought they could break the resolve of those who fight injustice by silencing and killing their leaders and activists. They too were proven wrong.

Ninoy Aquino spent seven years in jail, most of the time in solitary detention. Because of his sacrifice and that of others like him, our country now enjoys (and many times takes for granted) democracy. Nelson Mandela spent almost 27 years in jail (most of his young adult life). Because of his sacrifice and that of others like him, South Africa is now free of apartheid. Martin Luther King was killed for his advocacy for equal rights to African-Americans in America. Because of his sacrifice and that of others like him, America now has its first black President.

Mahatma Gandhi, himself a victim of not a few indignities and injustice in his peaceful fight to secure independence for India, speaks of St. Damien: “The political and journalistic world can boast of very few heroes who compare with Father Damien of Molokai. It is worthwhile to look for the sources of such heroism.”

3. It is a worthy offering to the Father.

In one of the Preface at Easter (V), these lines are prayed:
“As He offered His body on the cross, His perfect sacrifice fulfilled all others.
As He gave Himself into Your hands for our salvation,
He showed Himself to be the priest, the altar, and the lamb of sacrifice.”

Indeed, Jesus is not only our high priest who offers sacrifices. He is not only the locus, the place of sacrifice. He is Himself the sacrifice, a worthy oblation for our sins. Not that the Father demands the blood of His Son to be appeased but that by showing to humanity the extent with which Christ is willing to take so humanity could be saved from sin and death, humanity may by its free will come to accept the life God offers.

And if Christ’s suffering were a worthy oblation, would not the suffering we endure for Christ not also be considered in some ways the same? After all we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own” (1 Peter 2,9).

Six Sundays ago, September 6, at around 8:30 a.m., Fr. Cecilio Lucero, parish priest of Catubig, Northern Samar, was on board his Toyota van, when he was attacked in Barangay Layuhan, San Jose town, by around 30 unidentified armed men. He was killed on the spot.

Just last Sunday evening, October 11, 79 year-old Columban priest, Fr. Michael Sinnott, was kidnapped from outside his home in Pagadian City as he was taking an evening stroll in the garden. Around seven armed men burst into the garden and bundled the Irish missionary into a pickup truck and drove to a local beach. The vehicle was abandoned and burnt. Fr Michael was taken away in a speed boat.

What is the point to these seemingly senseless stories of suffering?

Again from Pope Benedict’s homily during last Sunday’s rites: “The Church walks the same path and suffers the same destiny as Christ, since she acts not on the basis of any human logic or relying on her own strength, but instead she follows the way of the Cross, becoming, in filial obedience to the Father, a witness and a traveling companion for all humanity.”

We put our trust in God who time and again has shown us his power and might by creating good out of things evil.

And so this message goes to all who suffer:
- to those who suffer from illness of any kind;
- to those who are persecuted because they stand up to what is right and just;
- to those who toil unrecognized and unappreciated;
- to those who fell victim to injustice and cruelty; and
- to those who give up so much in order to spread the faith.

Know that as you suffer and toil humbly and silently, you are enduring with Christ and for the body of Christ. And with Christ in you, you do not suffer in vain. As Cory Aquino now famously said: “None of the good that we do is ever lost.”

Be consoled then for when you suffer for the sake of the Kingdom, you will also receive the glory of the children of God.

Romans 8:16-18: “The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.”

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