The fourth chapter of Saint Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians is awash with paradox. He says in verse 18 that “we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen.” What is the unseen reality to which we look? Saint Paul says it is the “eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” that “this momentary light affliction is producing for us” (verse 17). That affliction is, evidently, “what is seen,” to which we do not look. Throughout this chapter, Saint Paul contrasts this invisible glory with this visible affliction. He describes these two realities as a treasure contained in an earthen vessel (verse 7), and as the inner self that is being renewed as the outer self that is wasting away (verse 16). What is seen is the earthen vessel, the outer self, the affliction. But, as Saint Paul says in the next chapter, “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7), and so we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen: the treasure, the inner self renewed, the eternal weight of glory.
The paradox goes deeper. It is not that we are to look past what is seen to what is unseen. Rather, we are to look to what is unseen in what is seen. A person’s affliction doesn’t just conceal or mask the underlying glory that is within her. Saint Paul says the affliction produces the glory. In a similar vein, he says, “[We are] always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body” (verse 10). The death of Jesus is carried about in the body of the faithful Christian, especially when he is undergoing bodily suffering. The life of Jesus is within that person. The life of Jesus is the renewal of the inner self, the eternal weight of glory being produced. We see this when we look to what is unseen. We see it because we walk by faith. We see it, not by overlooking the affliction, the dying of Jesus that is carried in that person’s body. Rather, the life of Jesus is shown to us in that affliction, “manifested in our body.”
Saint Paul teaches us to look at sick and suffering human beings the way we look at Jesus on the cross. Christians, and Catholic Christians in particular, are constantly looking at Jesus on the Cross. We put crucifixes all over the place: in churches, in classrooms, in works of art, on rosaries, around our necks, etc. We don’t do this to be morbid or out of macabre sadomasochism. We look to Jesus on the cross because we see divine love and immortal life in the suffering and dying of Jesus. We look to what is unseen. We don’t see the life and love of Jesus by looking past the cross. We look to his unseen glory in his cross. The cross does not conceal the divine love of Jesus. It reveals it. Jesus’ crucifixion does not merely precede his resurrection. It produces it.
What do we see when we look upon a person who is sick? Do we see someone who is diminished or decrepit, someone whose quality of life is compromised and whose survival is endangered? Or do we look to what is unseen and behold with eyes of faith the immortal spirit that God has enshrined within that person’s body, the “treasure” in that “earthen vessel”? If we do, we do well. But Saint Paul calls us to do better.
The afflicted Christian is “carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus.” We are to see that and to recognize the life of Jesus in the dying of Jesus. The dying of Jesus produces the life of his risen glory. The dying of Jesus shows us that glorious life. When we look upon our sick and suffering loved ones, that’s what we should see: a living crucifix. In their suffering, we see Jesus’ suffering on the cross, and Jesus’ cross is never just about suffering. We just don’t see it that way. We see it as the revelation of God’s love and the promise of unending life. In our sick and suffering loved ones, we see the same love of God producing in them what it produced in the crucifixion of Jesus: an “eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”