February 4, 2015
Wednesday of week 4 in Ordinary Time
Jesus Strengthens And Straightens
The Lord has compassion on those who fear him,
For he knows how we are formed;
he remembers that we are dust.
Jesus was rejected in his own hometown. The people he grew up with “took offense at him.” In fact they tried to kill him (Luke 4:28).
Let’s fantasize. Suppose that, just before Jesus got there, God had hit Nazareth with an earthquake. And just suppose, for the sake of argument, that many, with a faith they didn’t have in the Gospel story, a faith born of desperation, had asked him to cure their wounded and dying. Suppose Jesus had done so and that, as a result, the town had believed in him. Would the earthquake have been a loving act of God?
If the pain and suffering had predisposed the people to accept the gift of eternal life, would it have been a curse or a blessing?
This is what Hebrews is saying: Whenever God permits us to suffer (we don’t have to say he “sends” suffering), we can always draw good out of it. The good can even outbalance the bad. If it “brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it” even suffering can be “a cause not for pain but for joy.”
Hebrews gives two examples—and they are only examples—of how this might happen. The first is, “So strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees.” Sometimes suffering just makes us tough—able to endure privation, make sustained efforts, and not yield to difficulties. Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).
Our “cross” is whatever suffering falls on our shoulders as a result of the sin of the world. Every sin puts suffering into the world. That is why it is a sin. And much of that suffering hits people randomly. When I accept to bear what happens to fall on me—without cursing God, becoming a hater, responding with violence or with some “echo sin”—I am “carrying my cross.” If I respond with faith, hope and love, I am enduring evil in a way that redeems the world. I am carrying the same cross Jesus carried. And he is carrying it with me, in me and through me.
Christianity is not a namby-pamby religion. It invites us to give for what we want to get.
There’s a well-known story, which may be the fiction of some storytelling Irish priest, but also may very well be true, about a man who used to see his next door neighbor, an old lady, walking up the hill every morning to Mass. One day, after an ice-storm, he saw her crawling up the hill on her hands and knees because it was too slippery to walk. That did it; he converted to Catholicism.
What is certainly true, whether the story is or not, is that Jesus inspires countless men and women to do hard things for the sake of spiritual growth or to help their neighbors, including those in foreign countries—like the missionary going into a war-torn country whose friend said, “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars.” The missionary answered, “Neither would I.” Jesus is someone who can inspire us to “strengthen our drooping hands and our weak knees.”
Jesus also uses suffering (again, I don’t say “sends,” although it is not excluded) to help us “Make straight paths for your feet.” It is just a fact that sometimes we tend to wander off course. Things scare us or seduce us, and we deviate from the path of Jesus. What often helps us to “straighten out” when we do that is pain.
Usually the pain is just the natural consequence of our bad or irrational behavior. Jesus doesn’t (usually) save us from it. But when we are suffering from the results of our mistakes, Jesus does come along and offer us a way out. One of his primary titles is “Savior.” Nothing makes us more receptive to a savior than needing one. And when we need one, Jesus is there for us.
Pain without purpose and without any way to turn it to positive results is pure frustration. But by being united to Jesus as his body on earth, we can always let pain lift us up into the mystery Paul bore witness to: “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Colossians 1:24).
I can’t explain completely what is “lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” But part of it might be the current witness, the visible testimony to faith, hope and love, given precisely in our time and place. What Jesus expressed through his body on the cross, he is still expressing to the people of every age in every member of his body suffering and sacrificing “though him, with him, and in him,” until the end of time. In us he makes visible in our time what he made visible in his.
On the “marriage bed” of the cross, all the members of he Church, who are “brides in the Bride,” espoused to Christ in Baptism, present ourselves to him in total surrender, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until all is consummated in the marriage feast of the Lamb” (2Corinthians 11:2; Revelation 19:9; 21:2). It gives to human suffering a mystical dimension.
Pray in times of suffering: “Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all my being, bless his holy name.”
Practice: Be conscious, when you are suffering, that Jesus is suffering with you, in you and through you.
Discuss: Have you known anyone to become better through suffering?
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