Sunday, June 10, 2007

Why I Often Think of Jesus' Passion - rewritten 12-8-07

I was asked, by a good friend, why I had mentioned that I often think of Jesus' Passion, and why I didn't make an effort to think of happier things. It is because I find it a joyful thing to be a part of the redemption of the world. There is so much suffering in it, we middle class people in North America can't even imagine. It makes my suffering look like nothing. I have a house and a bed with nice clean sheets, and a housekeeper to change and wash them, and a pantry full of food that can be refilled any time, and medical insurance that gives me access to literally the best medical treatment in the world, and a husband who loves me, and children who also love me and respect me, and I have the resources to build a huge labyrinth in my backyard, with a stream and many flowering plants, and cactus wrens nesting in the front window, and 3 cats that love me and take care of me when I am alone, and many friends, and two paid for cars and all the fleece for spinning I could use in a year, and the same for sock yarn and knitting, and a million books... and a custom red wheelchair that is very comfortable, and a brand new iron to iron my closet full of nice clothes, and a new vacuum cleaner, too, not to mention a washer and dryer with hood ornaments that are in a laundry room, not a garage or down at the local "Sudsy Tub"....More than 90 percent of the world doesn't have half these things. They are being torn out of their homes to run into the desert without anything, hoping they might find some of their family, and if they are lucky they might find an international aid food station, where, if they are lucky they might get a bowl of cereal before it runs out, and if they're lucky they won't get any of the diseases of people who are suffering from malnutrition and stress, and are living too close together with inadequate hygiene...Or they are living a mile away, and mom and dad have lost their jobs to outsourcing, and the car has broken down again, and there is no money for groceries, and they've already been to the local church for the once a month food allotment, and because the family is intact they aren't eligible for AFDC, and the water and electricity are being turned off tomorrow for non-payment, and the youngest needs new glasses, and the teacher sent a note home requesting $25 worth of school supplies, and they have no idea how they are going to pay the rent in two weeks...You catch my drift. I think about this all the time. And all the other ways that people suffer through injustice, personal or societal.

If, as we are taught, and I choose to believe, my suffering, that I can't prevent and didn't ask for, is redemptive if I unite it with Christ's, how can I help but be happy about it? If my suffering makes a difference in this sorry world, then I will suffer, and be glad for the opportunity. I've been asked why I think about Christ's Passion and not something happier, for instance, the Resurrection. Thinking of Christ's resurrection is a very happy thought, and an important one, and I do think of it often. Every day that I feel a bit better is a resurrection day.Every day that I can get out of bed and do something useful around the house is a resurrection day. It makes me very happy, because it is what follows the suffering. If I hadn't had the pain, I wouldn't appreciate the absence of it nearly as much. The ability to be useful is the outcome of having had the surgery, or put up with the leg binding, or had the chemotherapy. Jesus could not have overcome sin and death if he hadn't suffered on the cross, giving himself for us out of unimaginable love. United with Christ in suffering, I am also, through my baptism, united with his resurrection. “For if we have grown into union with him, through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.” (Romans 6:5)

We all should be able to unite our suffering to Christ's on the Cross. That's the whole reason he did it! He became human like us, experienced joy and sorrow, illness and wellness just like us, adulation and humiliation, love and hate, gentleness and torture, and finally died, just like we do, even though he was God. He did it so that we would not only know how much he loves us, but so that we would know that he understands, and is with us when we suffer. Only a God who became small and vulnerable like us could bring us to believe, no, to know that he understands how we feel. We never suffer alone. He did it to conquer sin, which is the absence of love, and death.

When bad things happen it is so easy to despair, to wonder why it has happened to us, especially if we've tried to do all the right things. We've gotten good grades in school, we've worked hard, we've been faithful to our vows to our spouse and to God. We've gone to church, we've donated to good causes and volunteered our time. Why, when we've done what everyone said would keep us safe in every way, is this terrible thing happening to us? We become angry. Sometimes we blame God, and our anger is directed at Him. So many people have lost faith, or worse, begun to hate God, because they have had sickness, death, tragedies in their lives, through no fault of their own. I have heard from many doctors and nurses that they see this all the time. This is the real sickness. But if we really have faith, and have listened to what Jesus said about those who suffer, we will know that it is not because God is punishing us, or is gratuitously cruel. The poor and victims of social injustice are often thought to have done something to deserve their misery. This false belief has been around forever. Today it is found in people who believe that good people, those that have the blessing of God, will be prosperous and healthy. There is a similar New Age belief that our thoughts are real, and that as children of God, divine beings, we can create the life that we want if we are spiritual enough..It makes it easy on the conscience, because these ways of thinking blame the victim. Why should we help someone who either deserves what he got, or won't help himself? That homeless guy on the corner must be there because he's irresponsible. or an addict, or unspiritual.. But Jesus made it very clear that this isn't how it is. Before Jesus cured the blindness of the man at Siloam, he was asked by the Pharisees what sin the man or his parents had committed, and “Jesus answered, neither he,nor his parents sinned, it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.” John 9:3. We know that God isn't punishing us, or hurting us, or intentionally inflicting pain. These things happen because they have to, for reasons far beyond our ability to understand. As God said to Job, “Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding... who laid the cornerstone, while the morning stars sang in chorus...” We can't understand the ultimate truths of why and how the universe works the way it does. But when we persevere in faith and hope, when all around us is ruin, we “make the works of God visible” to those around us. We become hope and inspiration for others.

Do you know the doctrine of the Body of Christ? He is the head, and we are the body. Since the head can't live without the body, and the body can't live or act without the head, what happens to me happens to Christ, and what happens to Christ happens to me. So my illness happens to Christ, and his suffering on the cross happens to me. The same goes for you if you are aware of it. St. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, said that “As a body is one, though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body...” Again, since we are one body I (and you) share in His divinity, as He shares in our humanity. Since I share in His divinity, and am part of His body, my suffering and his suffering are one. My suffering can then become part of what Christ suffered for the salvation of the world. To show the whole world what love is, and what it is willing to endure. “It (love) bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (Cor. 13:7) I am a pretty happy person. It is in large part because I know all this, and am confident that it is true. My suffering isn't a waste.

There was a day when I felt particularly bad. I was also alone. I thought, with the author of Ecclesiastes, that it seemed that all our effort, even our short lives, are to no purpose. I was lying in my bed, almost unable to move, wondering what days like that are for. I thought of how short our lives are compared to the rest of creation. If you think about the age of the Earth, and then the age of the stars, by comparison, the age of a person is like nothing. We are "like grass, soon to wither.” Who are we, these short lived creatures on a small planet on the outer edge of a minor galaxy? And then I remembered. It is because I am a member of the Body of Christ that my days have meaning. All of them. Even the bad ones.We tend to think that the bad ones are, at best, to be gotten through as quickly as possible. Later in the afternoon, I got a call from a friend. There was trouble. Another friend had been badly hurt. In the same day, first suffering, then the opportunity to help someone in trouble, providing emotional support for that person, first in listening, then in prayer, and lastly in enjoying simple time together. The upset person that arrived left comforted. That day did have purpose. Every day has purpose, whether we see it or not. That day, I was able, at the end, to see.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul said that “living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him who is the Head, Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, with the proper functioning of each part, brings about the body's growth and builds itself up in love.” And also, “As a body is one, though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ.” ” If I am some essential part of the Body of Christ, and all the parts are essential, what happens to my suffering brother or sister, also essential parts of the Body, happens to me, and to you, and to Christ. I think about Jesus' passion because we are all called to grow into Christ by living the truth in love. And the greatest act of love ever, was Jesus' suffering and death on the cross. We are to be Christ for others, and realize that they are Christ, too. All of us, parts of one body. Me, Christ, all of us. I am never alone. And I have the honor of making up whatever is lacking in His suffering. (“Now I rejoice in my suffering for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church.” Col. 1:26.) And in this way, I also share in His resurrection. It is something that I can look forward to.

So, I often think of the passion of Christ. I think about how much he wanted to live. Of his agony in the garden. But his love for his people was so great, and his faith in God was so perfect, that in obedience, he went willingly to his death. Remember, he was fully human, and he had fear and an instinct to live just like us. He would have had to rely on faith, not the foreknowledge of the Omnipotent, if he were truly sharing the human condition. I think about that. On the cross, he cried out, “Why have you forsaken me?” The cry of the human being who has lost the consolation of the presence of God. And he lost it when he was at his greatest need. Just like us. But still, he never lost his sure knowledge that somewhere God was there. He commended his spirit to God. He ultimately trusted in Divine Providence. It is hard being this sick. It is hard watching my family suffer as they worry about me, and try to deal with each crisis, big or small. No one ever said life was easy. But Jesus did say to take up our crosses and follow him. And that his yoke was easy and his burden, light. It is only easy if we do as he did, let go of our fear and trust in God. If we do this, accepting that which we can't change, we are free to live gratefully with what we have. We are free to be happy. Despite the pain, both the physical kind, and the emotional kind, sharing in the cross, the opportunity to participate in destroying the absence of love, and then loving greatly, I find is a very great grace, and an honor and a blessing, all unasked for and undeserved. So there it is.

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