Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Suffering, Forgiveness, Hope, Part 1

Lent is a season that revolves liturgically around two themes, both of which are related, but each of which receives its own emphasis. At the opening of Lent, we are exhorted to works of penance and meditation on our sins. We are invited to go with Jesus Christ into the desert, to fast and pray and, as a result of this effort, to be tempted by the Devil. We do this so that we can properly prepare to receive God's forgiveness and welcome the Good News that will arrive at the Easter Vigil.

Before we arrive at Easter, however, the liturgy will quietly shift into a meditation on the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ. His sufferings are obviously a prelude to His death and triumph over death. On the other hand, they are, as was His temptation in the desert, models for us to imitate and so conform ourselves to grace in Christ. Unlike the personal initiative required for fasting and prayer, suffering generally arrives in our lives unininvited. We can prepare ourselves for suffering, but only in the most general way. When suffering comes, it is likely to throw us for a loop, no matter how well we have prepared. In the final two weeks of Lent, we are invited to watch as Jesus Christ prepares Himself and undergoes tremendous suffering, out of sheer obedience to His Father's divine will. Like Jesus, all we can do when suffering occurs is to navigate it as best as possible; we must attempt to see in it God's will, and move forward in faith and trust.

These two poles of Lent: repentance for sins, and Christ's suffering 'for our sake', are clearly related. We say that Christ 'was crucified for our sake', and by this we go beyond the observation that He took on suffering to give us an example. The Church has always affirmed that Christ's sufferings bear with them expiatory power. We are invited to make this claim by the prophet Isaiah, whose mysterious Suffering Servant 'justifies the many' by 'bearing our grief', being 'wounded for our transgressions'. In our failings, we 'like sheep have gone astray', but in a wondrous act of reconciliation, 'the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all' so that 'with his stripes we are healed'. I called the Suffering Servant 'mysterious': of course if we are willing to accept this as a prophecy of Christ's healing sufferings, we see into this mystery, at least a small way. So we also watch and experience Christ's passion not merely as students in a Stoic school, but we do so in an attitude of thanksgiving and worship, since we participate again in the unfolding of the triumph of good over evil, love over hate, God over Satan. "Through the Cross our human nature has been set at the right hand of the throne of God, and we have been granted countless good things besides. Therefore we must not give way to mourning or sadness; we must rejoice greatly instead over all these blessings." Thus St. John Chrysostom, echoing Ezra and Nehemiah, "This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep...for the joy of the LORD is your strength!" [Neh 8: 9-10] when the people were grieving over their sins.

The two poles of Lent, penance and Christ's passion, are thus related in the sense that while we are making an effort to do battle against sin by our repentance, the final victory belongs to Christ. Our efforts in one sense, are merely to prepare our hearts to recognize this victory and accept it as our own by faith.

At the same time (and this is what is so wonderful about the liturgy: its symbols move many directions at once), the same efforts of fasting, prayer and almsgiving will cost us. It is not for nothing that the same St. John Chrysostom in his Lenten homilies on Genesis begins the latter sermons with exhortations to patience (a word significantly related to 'passion') and perseverance in spite of the discomfort of hunger and distractions at prayer. Voluntary penance is a bit like football practice: you don't try out your offensive plays for the first time against a real defense in a real game. First you do a 'walk-through' to train all of the players to run, block, throw and catch under 'frictionless', ideal conditions. That practice will be tested by a real team on Sunday; for now, we get a taste of that testing by controlled experience of game conditions. Likewise, by fasting, by experiencing a small bit of discomfort when we fully expect it, we do prepare ourselves in a small way for the major sufferings that are likely to come when we least expect them: illnesses, the loss of a loved one, estrangement from loved ones, disappointment at work, fires, earthquakes and hurricanes.

Next time: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church." [Colossians 1: 24]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Lord works in mysterious ways -- this post is needed in light of the tragic events at NIU that took place the day of Part II of this post.

The Holy Spirit had to have inspired you to write this post at this time.


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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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