Jesus Christ came to transform the meaning of suffering. As our second reading says, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.” We cannot undervalue the importance of this passage. We do not have a God who is ignorant of our suffering. We do not have a God who has distanced himself from our suffering. One could go so far as to say that Jesus Christ became man IN ORDER that he could suffer. This is why our first reading says that the Father was “pleased to crush” Jesus in infirmity. Why was he “pleased” to do this? Because we ourselves are crushed in infirmity. You see, God robed us of the ability to accuse him of not understanding our situation. We are not able to say to God, “You do not know what it means to suffer,” because he himself sent his Son to suffer just as we do.
And because God suffered in the person of Jesus Christ, the meaning of suffering has been transformed. Notice what is being said: the MEANING of suffering is transformed. We are not saying that suffering is being taken away from us. For many people this is a huge scandal. Some people think that if they live a good life… if they believe in God… if they are nice to everyone… then God will never let them suffer. Then when they do suffer they become bitter and resentful and become convinced that not only is God not good but that in some ways God is vengeful. They forget that there is no one as good and just and upright as Jesus Christ himself and yet Jesus died a horrible death on the cross. This was the problem facing James and John in today’s Gospel. They approached Jesus in complete ignorance and arrogance saying, “Master we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” What was it they were asking: to have the highest reward of discipleship. What they did not foresee is that the reward of discipleship is only given through the cost of discipleship. Jesus refused to promise them the reward they sought but what he did promise was a sharing in his “cup.” This “cup” is the cup of his own sufferings. Jesus does not promise us a life without suffering. He promises that our sufferings will be filled with meaning.
First of all, suffering is an encounter with oneself. There are very few things more isolating than suffering. Even Jesus on the cross said, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” When we suffer we experience our radical individuality. I cannot give my suffering to another person. Another person cannot transfer my suffering onto themselves. As a result my suffering belongs to me and I come to know myself in a unique way through it. This is the very reason why Jesus’ resurrected body still had the nail marks: his suffering shaped his identity.
Second, suffering is a training ground for self-gift. You see, no one could carry the cross to the end except Jesus. But what allowed him to persevere to the end was keeping his eye on the end game. As scripture says, “For the sake of the joy that lay ahead of him he endured the cross.” Jesus knew that his suffering would “justify many and their guilt he would bear” as our first reading stated. So too, when we unite our sufferings to Jesus’ sufferings we learn to offer our sufferings for the salvation of others. This is why St. Paul says that we “fill up what is lacking on the sufferings of Christ.” Our sufferings matter.
Third, suffering reminds us of our need for others. When we suffer we need help. Perhaps this is medical help or psychological help. Most often is it simply emotional support that we need. When we suffer we experience our limitations. We realize, “I am not able to make my suffering go away by myself. I need a doctor. I need a counselor. I need my mom or my dad. I need someone just to be with me even though I know they can’t take my suffering away.” Even Jesus had Simon of Cyrene and the weeping women while on his way to Calvary.
Fourth, those who are close to one who suffers also experience their own limitations. They recognize the radical impossibility of taking their loved one’s suffering away. And they experience a different type of suffering: the suffering of seeming helplessness. We find ourselves saying, “If I could take your suffering onto myself I would.” But we know that is an impossibility and we feel reduced to being a bystander or an onlooker. And yet, this was the position that the Blessed Virgin Mary occupied while standing next to the cross. Mary could not take the cross away from her Son. And yet her Son’s suffering was her suffering too. His sufferings pierced her heart with the pain of seven swords. But she did not shirk away from standing by his side. In fact, she was Jesus’ focal point while he was hanging on the Cross.
Fifth, our own suffering makes us compassionate for other. Those who suffer have a direct experience of isolation, limitation, helplessness and dependence. For this reason, when a person who HAS suffered meets someone who IS suffering they know well what that person is experiencing. They know that they cannot take that person’s pain away but they know the value of standing by their side. They know the words that such a person needs to hear. They know that simply being present is a comfort. And this is precisely what Jesus suffering proves to us. Jesus suffered. And because he suffered we have a God who knows what suffering is like. And because of this we know that God has not abandoned us.
Finally, suffering points to the failure of this life and the promise of life eternal. The sufferings in this life are like labor pains that push us toward the life that is to come. We are not made for this life. We are made for eternal life. As St. Paul says, “the sufferings of this present life are as nothing compared to the glory that is to be revealed to us in the life to come.” The blessing of suffering is that it turns our eyes in hope to that place and time where “every tear will be wiped away from our eyes.” This is exactly the encouragement Jesus gave to the repentant thief. While hanging on the cross the repentant thief asked, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And when, in our own suffering, we say the same thing to Jesus we hear him tell us, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Our suffering focuses us on paradise.
The fact is this, we are in a world that wants to avoid suffering. We are looking for that dietary pill that makes us loose weight while remaining gluttons. We expect things on demand, but are resentful when we are demanded upon. We live in a society that promotes assisted suicide or euthanasia out of a misunderstanding of suffering. Suffering does not destroy our human dignity. Rather suffering calls us to embrace human dignity at its most vulnerable point. Suffering causes us to encounter ourselves, it turns us into a self-gift, it reminds us of our need for others, it allows us to experience our limitations, it makes us compassionate and it focuses us on eternal life. God does not abandon us in our suffering rather he embraces us in our suffering. For this reason today’s Psalm says, “Our soul waits for the Lord.” You are not alone in your suffering. Rather that same psalm reminds us, “The eyes of the Lord are upon those... who hope for his kindness.”