This liturgical year we hear the Gospel of Mark proclaimed on most Sundays. His, the shortest of all four, can be divided into two parts: the service of Christ (chapters 1-13) and the sacrifice of Christ (chapters 14-16). Mark recalls many healing stories so his readers see and believe that Jesus came to touch and restore to wholeness those who were suffering. One ultimate question for all Christians must be answered: how do we amalgamate suffering into our lives as believers?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45) was a Lutheran theologian and one of the first to see the evil of Hitler in pre-war Germany. Outspoken in the early days of the Third Reich, Bonhoeffer came to study and teach in New York but returned to Germany because he bore a moral responsibility to be with his people. After harassment and great suffering he was imprisoned in Berlin, then moved to Flossenbürg. He was hanged by the Nazis just two weeks before the Allies freed that camp. Revered as “theologian and martyr” by many Lutheran and Anglican communities, Bonhoeffer has always been a source of wisdom for me since I was a novice in the Order in 1968. It was our novice master who introduced us to his two classics: The Cost of Discipleship and Letters and Papers from Prison.
Bonhoeffer knew suffering well in the tumultuous, ugly world of the Third Reich and its genocide. Yet his powerful faith and brilliant theology brought life and hope to thousands in the German Resistance and readers beyond the borders of the Reich. This Lutheran man born in Poland knew the New Testament and theology well and his experiences of Church in the Nazi era gave him a powerful perspective on suffering.
God, he emphasized, is a God who bears: bears our sin, bears our pain, bears our anguish. The deep meaning of the Cross of Christ is that there is no suffering on earth that is not borne by God.
The Body of Christ, he wrote, is called to share in the messianic suffering of God by being there for others, carrying their burdens and thus fulfilling the duty laid on them by Christ himself. In doing so they become "like Christ," conforming their lives to the way of self-giving love.Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ (Gal 6:2). Bonhoeffer boldly puts it this way: through the life of responsible discipleship Christ actually takes form in us, lives his ongoing life in us. The Church, then, is not a group of people who are merely worshipers of Christ; the Church is Christ Himself taking form in a community that lives for others, caring for neighbors, both individually and corporately, both near and far.
This man insisted strongly that Christians need not look for a cross to carry in life because opportunities will occur along life's way and all that is required is the willingness to act when the time comes. The needs of neighbors, especially those of the weak and downtrodden, the victimized and the persecuted, the ill and the lonely will become abundantly evident. The horrors of Nazi Germany surrounded him and pervaded every aspect of Bonhoeffer’s life. His response was to continue preaching and teaching, bravely carrying out the command of Jesus to ‘take up the cross daily.’ “When Christ calls you, he bids you come and die.” (The Cost of Discipleship) He lived and died what he taught and preached.
Suffering is a participation in the mystery of Christ and is the way St. Paul came to realize he could become like Christ. Suffering was his way of “becoming like him (Christ) in his death” so that he “may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11). Through his suffering, Paul saw himself as participating in the Passion of Christ. Because we are being saved through the death and resurrection of Christ we must participate in his Passion. His Pascha is our way of life.
Feeding America is a nationwide network of 200 member food banks that serve 46.5 million people each year [1 in 7 of all U.S. citizens]. Through statistics they gathered in 2014 they conclude that 89% of households in the U.S. with children in them are food insecure. 13.1% of the world’s population is hungry, or stated in another way, 952 million go undernourished every day. The world does produce enough food to feed all 7 billion people on the planet, but those who go hungry either have no land to grow food or money to purchase food. In 2010 it was estimated that more than 20,000 children die from hunger each day on Earth. Each day! These are sobering statistics about the plight and suffering of the hungry.
In 2006 I was privileged to visit Russia and one day we were taken to a rather remote village northwest of Moscow. Two memorable moments remain etched in my heart. We visited a school for the arts for young children and it was buzzing with creativity. A few villagers proudly showed us their grocery store because that day it had food on the shelves. We take it for granted that our stores will always be overstocked with produce, meats, dairy and even exotic foods. In my family we were taught to always be grateful for food and never, ever complain about preparation or scarcity. That was a lesson well learned that we all need to heed – simply being grateful for all we have can bring us graced moments of discipleship that spring into some kind of action to relieve the plight of the poor.
I know I’ve shared in one of these columns that I’ve lived with cancer for 21 years. One of the greatest things I’ve learned about myself (besides God’s loving care and patience) is that personal suffering makes one much more aware of and empathetic to the sufferings of other people. Consider a time in your life when you were forced to undergo a terrible trial, like food poisoning. Remember how you almost wanted to die rather than undergo that horrible plight? Well, when you know of someone else enduring the same thing it’s easy to commiserate with and care for him or her. Cancer patients often choose to use humor in order to contend with and survive the endless treatments and internal battles in the body. I’ve heard hilarious comments from other patients in labs; they appear to be odd and even wrong to some people, but it’s a way of living with pain and suffering.
Suffering is a given in human existence. So again comes that question: how do we amalgamate suffering into our lives? Our Christian faith is rooted in the experience of the death and resurrection of Jesus. His story is our story. There were clashes he had with religious authorities and a gradual awareness of those who plotted to have him executed. Our faith will necessarily bring us into conflict with certain political and moral issues, conflicts often given to us without asking for them, much as a disease just appears in our bodies. I don’t need to extrapolate too much on financial problems thousands have to endure like foreclosure, bankruptcy, credit card debt and endless tuition payments. Talk about pain and mental anguish! Yet Jesus surely knows what human pains are; he was abandoned by his own chosen ones. I’m convinced he went to his death with a heart already broken with pain. Believe me – the Lord knows our pains and never leaves us! God will not pay a Visa bill but God does enter an open heart with comfort and never disappoints the believer who asks for healing and love.
St. Paul’s desire to align himself with the Passion of Jesus is exactly how we can learn to accept suffering – both our own and that of others – and still live life fully. When I tell the Lord in prayer that I will accept this pain, this difficulty, this situation as part of living his life, there comes with that resignation a concrete knowledge that God is with us in our pain. Jesus screamed from the cross in despair yet somehow was able to surrender his life to the Father with a thread of faith.
After 21 years God hasn’t miraculously taken cancer out of my body. However, what God has done is miraculously given me courage to keep living, confident that doctors and medical improvements allow me to love life. One time I was waiting to get in the radiation tanning booth (an inside joke) and a 6 year old boy was waiting too. He had beautiful black doe eyes and a body full of squamous cell carcinoma. Jorge looked up at me and said: “I like wearing my red goggles when I go to the beach.” A child’s wisdom and humor in the face of adversity and pain – that’s pure grace, a reason to embrace pain with Jesus and Jorge and not let it control my life!
Recently we all saw the reports of a heinous mass beheading of Christians. There are friars in Syria and South Sudan who see and know the plight of millions of refugees and human suffering we in the U.S. will hopefully never know. How can our hearts not be moved when faced with such horror? But rather than blithely condemn, perhaps we can see, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that we are all being beheaded in the sense that when one human being suffers, we all suffer. When one life is taken, we all lose one mirror of God’s love and self-revelation. Yet when we allow ourselves to “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us” [MT 5:44] we remove some of the darkness that covers areas of our world. It is a gargantuan challenge to love men and women of ISIS, yet if we are to be consistent in our faith, that’s exactly what Jesus commands. Possible? I say it is. We may lose face at work or with friends but we are called to die with Christ and this is one real way of doing that. Politics and national security aside, our faith demands that we do not hate. Jesus gave us as example at the Last Supper and on Calvary. Either we follow Christ or we turn away from him and the imperfection of humanity. Love gives birth to only love, even in the tiniest moments of life that are unseen.
God created us and fully understands what it means to be human. That was one reason why Jesus took our human nature – to redeem it and show us its beauty and dignity. It only stands to reason, then, that Christ does know what it’s like to suffer physically, mentally and spiritually. You know one place where Bonhoeffer experienced the suffering of others? When he was a student at Union Seminary in New York City he attended a church in Harlem. He saw the scourge of racism and its detrimental effects on the African-American community. And after his studies he returned to the plague of Nazism in Europe. We only need to walk our own streets and ride public transportation to know the sufferings of others. A leper came to Jesus [and kneeling down] begged him and said, ‘If you wish, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, ‘I do will it. Be made clean.’ [MK 1:40-41] He saw, he was moved, he acted.
"Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Gal 6:2). That injunction came in the earliest days of Christianity when people did experience hatred for their faith in Jesus. Our faith system is rooted in suffering, born out of suffering and borne with suffering. To the eyes of some, it is foolish to believe in a Savior who was killed, but through the eyes of faith we know that death “has no sting” and is the doorway to eternal life. When we know and accept our own suffering, then we can see the pains of others more clearly and help them bear it bravely, sometimes even alleviate it.
As a Lenten meditation, recall one period in your life or an experience when all you knew was pain. It can be a death, a phase of not knowing what to do next in life, the end of a relationship, deep depression…..anything. Once you have that memory raised to consciousness, then recall how it felt. And then, with that memory of pain alive in your heart, look to the Cross. How was it possible for a man already physically shredded and screaming to God in abandonment still able to gasp: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” [LK 23:46] Remember Who was at your side and gave you courage to face another day of living or close the coffin or open the drapes? Who holds you spiritually and offers some kind of comfort today? It is this God of ours who, indeed, “bears our sin, bears our pain, bears our anguish.” That knowledge empowers us to courageously carry our own cross(es) with a certain equanimity even for long periods of time. And our crosses enable us to help carry those of other people. This is true discipleship, this is the work of God.
We invite you to accept God’s forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation; friars are in confessionals here 6 days a week. We also invite you to enter more deeply into the Paschal Mystery of Christ with the liturgies of Holy Week and the Sacred Triduum here at St. Peter’s in the Loop. Check the bulletin or web site for full schedules. Thank you for your faith expressed here at St. Peter’s and for all your support. God bless you richly and fill you with comfort in your pain and peace in your hearts.
Fr. Bob Hutmacher, ofm