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Understanding Suffering

Posted : Sep-10-2021

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Fr. Frank McDevitt is the pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish in Aurora, Ont.

I believe that most people of a certain age can recount stories of suffering. An illness that may have led to death at an early age or an illness that attacked some innocent soul. I have no doubt that we have each stood aghast at the hardness of life.

We are never too clear on what we are to do with suffering. The instinct of our society is to alleviate all suffering if possible. But this good and noble instinct runs amuck when it leads people to believe that if suffering cannot be alleviated, then death should be considered – that somehow a life with suffering is not a viable life.

The readings for this weekend weave suffering throughout the framework of their message.
Isaiah describes the work of the suffering servant and Jesus calls on the disciples to take up their cross and follow.

We know clearly that suffering from the Christian point-of-view is intimately entwined with life. This is not to say that we are somehow advocating a masochistic view of life. What we are recommending is a view of life that doesn’t have blinders on. The spectrum of life includes great joy, contentment, hope, love, but it also includes the experience of suffering.

If we accept the idea, as I trust you do, that suffering is inevitably part of life, we are to claim some meaning from it in the context of our lives.

It strikes me, though, that first we may need to nail-down what is meant by suffering. Suffering can enter any realm of our existence. Our immediate thought may be to see suffering as only physical, but it also can be emotional, mental and spiritual. At the core of suffering is pain, but the other important quality is diminishment. What suffering does in a real way is diminish us. It tears away and tears down.

Isaiah assures vindication for the suffering servant and Christ promises that He must suffer and die to come to resurrection. Each teaching, in their own way, promises a certain value on the other side of the struggle.

The Scriptures for today offer signposts towards understanding the significance of suffering.

We are never to understand suffering as a solitary experience. In our own struggle and diminishment, or in observing the struggle and diminishment of others, we are to see the experience of suffering in solidarity with all who struggle – most particularly with the suffering Christ. We are to take up our crosses and follow Him.

The Scriptures for today remind us that diminishment calls us to the eternal; that those who lose their life will save it.

In our solidarity with Christ, suffering invites us into the saving work of Christ and calls us closer to God.

It is in a very essential way tied to the teaching of James in today’s epistle. It is the impetus for the saving works of faith that James gives such clear importance, too.

The works of faith, charity and justice grow out of a response, in part, to suffering and our solidarity with those who suffer.

If faith is lived in the real world, then we see the diminishment that suffering brings to others and recognize the suffering of our own lives. We cannot stand on the island of faith with the waves crashing around us and presume to not notice.

When the waves of life come crashing in, it calls our faith into action and, if we ignore that call, then we make our faith much less than it can be. We make it something that does not rise up and transform, but some good omen for a limited life. We make faith a holy rabbit’s foot, which validates our good fortune, but is a mystery in the face of suffering and the ultimate diminishment, which is death.

We are called into unity with God in the Sacrament of Eucharist. We are called into a celebration of life in the actions of this sacrifice.

From time-to-time at the end of the consecration of the mystery of faith we proclaim, “Lord by your cross and resurrection you have set us free, you are the savior of the world.”

Every time we celebrate the Eucharist, let us do so with the confident faith to go from this place ready to proclaim the saving power of Christ in our compassion and care, our concern and efforts, in the knowledge that the power of Christ is active and alive in each of our lives. Let us see in those times of our own suffering and diminishment solidarity with the suffering servant.

People may ask who this suffering servant is, we with Peter, say that He is the Christ.

This homily is based on the readings from the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B: Isaiah 50.5-9; James 2.14-18; Mark 8.27-35 – Peters Declaration about Jesus.