A parishioner told me a story this week that’s so good I’m going to beg her to tell it to you herself the next chance we have for personal testimonies. But here’s the short version.
The story began with a scene almost every parent knows—a youngster who didn’t want to go to Mass. His family was on holiday with non-Catholic friends, and their children didn’t have to go to Mass so why did he?
But Mom prevailed, and they were getting ready for Mass when the non-Catholic friends announced “Well, since you have a bit of a drive to church, we’ll go to see a movie while you’re gone.”
What do you think the Catholic boy loved more than anything? Right. Movies. Twenty years later, films are still his passion.
So the boy in the car was not a happy camper, and he let his Mom know it. Her response—which I am only quoting in part—was as good as any homily I can preach about the readings this morning.
“Johnny,” she told her son, “we go to Mass because we have faith. And even if faith doesn’t matter to you now, some day it will.
“Because everyone has their suffering in life. I haven’t had mine yet and neither have you. But one day suffering will come, and faith will help us deal with it.”
What great wisdom there was in that simple conversation! Of course, faith is about much more than facing suffering, but it sure helps.
One of the things that struck me was that the wise mother never said faith helps us avoid suffering. In the years I’ve spent with suffering people, I’ve found about half of them felt let down by God, since they’d fallen into believing that an untroubled life is the reward that’s due to those who love God.
Even the Catechism of the Catholic Church admits that suffering is one of the experiences that seem to contradict the Good News and can shake our faith and become a temptation against it (CCC 164). I think we can all agree with that—it’s used as a standard argument against Christianity. When the one who suffers is a child, it’s even easier to see the problem.
But if suffering does contradict the Good News, then we’re in deep trouble. So this is really a question we can’t afford to ignore—because if we’re not suffering now, we’re going to, sooner or later.
So what’s the answer? It seems to me this is a problem only Christ can solve. You can make a pretty good case for the existence of God using your head alone—in other words, with the tools of reason or philosophy. Try to do that with the suffering of children or the torture of innocents, or the maddening experience of unanswered prayer for healing of a loved one. It won’t work. Only Jesus can answer the problem of pain.
I was quite surprised, to tell you the truth, to find how little the Catechism says about human suffering. Then I figured out why: it says little about suffering but lots about Jesus. And he is the answer.
Notice I say that “He is the answer,” not “He has the answer.” Jesus resolves the apparent contradiction between suffering and the Father’s love more by what he does than by what he says.
Who is the suffering servant crushed with pain in our first reading this morning? The Church has always identified him with Jesus. A few verses earlier in the same passage, Isaiah speaks of him as a man of suffering.
It sounds so dark. Yet “Out of his anguish he shall see light,” the prophet tells us, and “he shall see his offspring and prolong his days.”
This is not human reasoning. Anguish is anguish. Being crushed with pain is not a good thing. But this is the way God chose to ransom the world.
And although Jesus has redeemed the world, he has chosen to allow us to share in his work of redemption until the end of time. As St. Paul says, “In my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24).
So the first answer Jesus gives to our heartfelt question about why he can allow human suffering is “because it permits us to drink the cup that he drank.” To suffer is to be invited to become a partner in the saving mission of Christ.
Suffering that is offered to God is a work of atonement—for our own sins, the sins of others, and sin in the Church.
Some years back, I asked myself this question: Can we know Jesus without knowing suffering?
I wasn’t entirely sure then and I’m not sure now—it’s a difficult question. But Jesus himself said the disciple is not greater than the master. I think, then, that the second answer to why God permits suffering is “so that we might know Jesus.”
And today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews assures us that Jesus cares. We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has in every respect been tested as we are… Jesus was not like the Greek gods on Mount Olympus, unfeeling and immune; he wept, he bled, he grieved. To know his sacred humanity is essential to knowing his divinity.
In other words, Jesus stands beside all who suffer, in complete solidarity. Knowing this is a huge help to knowing him—and to facing the suffering in our lives.
I have used a lot of words to say much less than a crucifix does about Christ’s answer to our questions about suffering.
One final word about unanswered prayer—because that topic often comes up when we’re talking about suffering, especially the suffering of our loved ones.
The foot-in-mouth disease of James and John in today’s Gospel reminds us that we sometimes pray for things without knowing what we’re asking. The two brothers really didn’t have a clue. Perhaps they just wanted to be close to Jesus. They asked for crowns, he gave them the cross. They got what they really needed, not what they asked for.
I will never tell anyone not to pray for miracles, especially for others. But as the years go by, I’m more and more convinced that our first prayer in tough times should be for greater understanding of the mystery of suffering—and for the grace and courage to accept it, united prayerfully with Jesus himself.