Every year we celebrate Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion. We hear the account of the Lord’s Passion from one of the four gospels. As we listen to this account of the agony, arrest, torture, crucifixion, death and burial of the Lord Jesus, we are, as people of faith, aware that what we are hearing about is more than just history. The Passion of Jesus is an event in history that is still present. It’s saving effects are present in our lives; Jesus’ sacrificial self-offering is made present in the Eucharist and the whole sacramental life of the Church. We are also present in that historical event. By our sins, we are present as Jesus’ torturers and executioners; by our charity, we are present, like the Blessed Virgin Mary, the good thief and Simon of Cyrene, as participants in his saving work.
One way we participate in the saving passion of Jesus is through suffering – through our own passion. This idea that we share in the suffering of Christ by our own suffering occurs frequently in the New Testament. For example, Saint Peter writes, “Beloved, do not be surprised that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as if something strange were happening to you. But rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ” (1 Pet 4:12-13). Saint Paul speaks in a similar way: “As Christ’s sufferings overflow to us, so through Christ does our encouragement also overflow.” (2 Cor 1:5) And again, “The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:16-17). In these passages and many others, we are told that we are to join our suffering to Christ’s in order that we might join also in his resurrection. We even get the sense that when we join our sufferings with Christ’s, we are sharing in the saving purpose of Jesus’ Passion: his redemption of the world. This comes across especially in a passage from St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians: “I rejoice in my sufferings 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 1:24). By our suffering, we can share in the suffering of Christ and, in some way, in the redemption Christ’s suffering accomplished. In Christ, therefore, our suffering can be redemptive.
It is important to be clear about what that means and what that does not mean. It does not mean that suffering is good. On the contrary, suffering is bad. It is not characteristic of healthy, fully flourishing human life. It is not part of the original creative purpose of God, but a consequence of original sin. As such, suffering is part of what Christ came to undo. Ultimately, in the new creation that Christ will bring about, “there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain” (Rev 21:4). Moreover, to affirm that Christian suffering can be redemptive does not mean that we should not work to prevent suffering or alleviate suffering. We certainly should. We should avoid suffering because it is evil and the first principle of moral conduct is to do good and avoid evil. We should always seek to prevent suffering and alleviate the suffering of others. This is a basic requirement of justice and at the heart of the practice of health care. It’s also a way that we serve Jesus. In the persons of his least brothers and sisters, he tells us, “I was hungry and you gave me food, . . . ill and you cared for me” (Matt 25:35-36). Ordinarily, we should also seek to avoid and alleviate our own suffering. We should always seek to prevent suffering that is detrimental to our health and we should ordinarily avoid suffering in the form of pain or discomfort. Sometimes we can rightly choose not to avoid of alleviate suffering in order to be more fully united to the suffering Christ. We do this when we fast or undertake other sacrifices or forms of penance. However, our participation through suffering in the redeeming Passion of the Lord comes most often and most profoundly in the suffering we do not choose.
Death comes for us all. Illness, in one form or another, comes for us all. We don’t choose to become ill or do die. In fact, we choose to prevent these in so far as we can. Illness and death are not good things. Nevertheless, in the providential love of God, they can lead to great things. They can lead to eternal life in God’s new creation, a life we “inherit” with Jesus (see Rom 8:17) in his Resurrection. But before we share in Jesus’ Resurrection, we have the opportunity to share in his Passion. In our suffering, whether we have chosen it or not, we are invited to participate in the suffering of the Lord Jesus, to make our suffering a part of his suffering for the redemption of the world.