09 September 2012
A priest once heard a woman sobbing in the stillness of a church. He wondered, “What could be the problem?” Did someone die? Were they ill? Had they lost their job? He went up to console her and asked, “What’s the trouble?”
Her answer stunned him. “Father, I call myself a Christian. But my life is going well. I have no suffering, no sorrows, and no problems worth talking about. I am worried that perhaps I have fallen from Christ.”
How strange her remark sounds…but how right-on it is! The Christian life is marked by suffering. The Christian life is marked by the cross, and where there is no cross, there there is no Christ. St. Paul told the Hebrews, “If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.”
Now sometimes the cross comes to us unsought. The person whose marriage falls apart despite their best efforts…the one who hears that horrid word ‘cancer’ from the doctor…the one who becomes isolated at school because he bears the name of Christ…nobody wants these things, no one desires them, but they come nonetheless.
Joachim and Anna bore the cross of childlessness. When we read their story, and hear how uprightly they lived, and how cruelly they were taunted, it makes us weep. But it was through their suffering, and through their prayers, that God made them ready to become parents of the Theotokos. How else can we explain how willing they were to give her up to life in the Temple at just three years of age? Their suffering bore rich fruit.
But what about us? What if we have no suffering in our life, to speak of? Well, in such times we can take up the cross of self-discipline. Prayer, fasting and alms are all means by which we say “no” to ourselves and “yes” to God and to others.
There are those who like to say they follow “the theology of the cross,” and surely the cross is a wonderful theology to follow. But for St. Paul and for all the saints from then till now, the cross is not merely a clever phrase, or way of speaking. For all the saints, the cross is a daily experience of being united to Christ in his sufferings. St. Paul says, “God forbid that I should glory except in the cross of Christ, whereby I was crucified to the world, and the world was crucified to me.” And again, he tells us, “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” Where there is no cross, there there is no Christ.
But why? Why is the cross so necessary for the Christian life? If we are the children of God, then why must we suffer…why must we discipline ourselves?
In the first place, the suffering of Christ was the means by which he gave his life for us; and if we are to receive that life, suffering is the means by which it enters us. In today’s gospel Jesus tells Nicodemus, “As Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so must the Son of man be lifted up, so that all who believe in him should have eternal life.”
Think of a blood transfusion. The one who donates the blood, gives it through a wound opened in his body with a needle. But the one who receives it, must receive it through a wound opened in his body likewise with a needle. When we embrace suffering, not with complaining but with repentance and faith, we are joined to the one who joined himself to us completely on the cross.
And suffering accomplishes its work in another way. Soren Kierkegaard tells the story of a swan who flew high above a barnyard. He worked hard to get his food; but the ducks in the barnyard were fed by the farmer. One day his curiosity got the best of him. He landed in the barnyard. To his surprise, the farmer didn’t try to catch him. Instead, he fed the swan.
Day after day, the swan began to land in the barnyard for his food. He grew fatter and slower. Finally one day the farmer went to grab him…and he had become so fat he was unable to escape.
Kierkegaard asks us, “What if someone had scared off the swan…had made his time in the barnyard unpleasant.? The swan would never have been caught by the farmer. That’s what the cross does in our life. It reminds us that this life, where so many glory in the wrong things, is fundamentally upside down. All the glory, all the pleasure, all the power of this world ends at the grave.
But those who have been joined to Christ in his sufferings have something different to look forward to. “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs-- heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
So let us learn to embrace the suffering that comes our way in this life. Let us embrace the disciplines of prayer, and alms, and fasting. Wherever we see Christ suffer, there let us join him, whether it is the poor, the hungry, the sick—wherever he hides himself. For our cross, embraced in repentance and faith, joins us to Christ’s cross, the source of our life. And by the cross the Lord will teach us to look past these present passing pleasures, to the eternal joy at his right hand, of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.