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The humanity of suffering


 Twenty-second Sunday of the Year

Readings: Jeremiah 20: 7-9; Romans 12: 1-2; Matthew 16: 21-27.


We suffer, don’t we! It is part of our human experience. Sometimes we suffer at the hands of others, even through things like gossip, sometimes we suffer at our own hands, when we choose to act against our conscience, and sometimes when we suffer it is not anyone’s fault, like those caught up in earthquakes and tsunamis.

We could make an extremely long list of the ways of human suffering. Old prayers and songs appreciate this, reminding us that we live in a vale of tears. And then, when our suffering ends, we die. That is final, isn’t it!

Recently, I visited a monastery where the master of novices had placed a written sign on the wall. It read, “The Greatest Gift of God’s Love.” He had placed this next to the crucifix, the symbol of the Christ who suffers and who dies.

At a young age, this master had come to appreciate what God had done and it continued to fire up his life into well into his sixties. He told me that if he could share nothing else with the novices, he wanted them to appreciate this one point.

The incarnation of Christ is simply wonderful. It is the gift of God’s love. The idea that God could become one of us mere creatures is awesome. When Jesus was born, the whole world changed. But that is not the end of the story.

It is as if Jesus said, “I have become human and, to be fully faithful to that call, I have to accept everything about humanity that I can, even suffering, even death. I can’t stop half way.” So the incarnation leads inexorably to the passion. This is why that old novice master calls it The Greatest Gift of God’s Love.

Our human response is to reject suffering. We don’t want this part of being human. We see it when people want to kill themselves, or want others to kill them, because they cannot face the thought of suffering.

There is a point where the best of medicines cannot help us and we face the reality of suffering. And, because we care for our friends and family, we don’t want them to suffer either. We try to protect them from suffering even when it is not possible.

Some parents hover protectively around their children to ensure that they can never be hurt. Those children can be permanently damaged by the cocoon woven from over-protection. A parent, who tries too hard to protect their child from suffering a broken heart, may end up ensuring that the child can never enter a loving relationship.

Peter loved Jesus and his response to Jesus is really extremely normal. He wants to protect Jesus from the consequences of being human. But as a realist, Jesus knows that the incarnation leads to the passion. He was ready to suffer, as humans do, and he pushed aside Peter’s attempt to protect him from reality.

Writing to the Christians at Philippi a few decades later, St. Paul penned a beautiful hymn. “Jesus, being in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped. But he emptied himself, taking the form a slave, becoming as human beings are; and being in every way like a human being, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross.”

Yes, we suffer, don’t we! And so did Jesus, our God.