Suffering: A New Situation

I gave a short talk at the Good Friday service at my parish on the question of vicarious suffering. I spoke from notes, but I began with this:

In the David Mamet film Heist, the dubious character played by Danny DeVito says: “Everybody needs money. That’s why they call it money.”

We might turn that around and say that nobody wants to suffer; that’s why they call it suffering.

We humans have always suspected that suffering has some uncanny meaning. Many pagans thought it was the work of evil witchdoctors. Until the story of Job called that belief into question, Jews thought suffering was punishment for sin. As the Old Testament began to prepare itself for the New Testament, the Suffering Servant Songs in Second Isaiah introduced the idea of vicarious suffering: one person’s suffering mysteriously became a blessing for others. The prophet shocked his people by announcing that: by his wounds we were healed. 

And finally, as Pope John Paul II said in his 1984 Apostolic Letter on suffering, “with the Passion of Christ all human suffering has found itself in a new situation.”

Occasionally, one catches a glimpse of that new situation. I will mention two occasions when I did.

. . . (I then spoke of an old friend who died in the 1980s and my wife, Liz, who died in 2007, each finding great consolation in offering their suffering for others.)

For Frank and for Liz, suffering was a participation in the Cross of Christ, a sharing in the drama of salvation. Each saw the suffering they experienced as efficacious in the lives of others – whether known or unknown to them.

Hans Urs von Balthasar insisted that to be a Catholic is to know that somewhere someone unknown to me is suffering on my behalf.

Our lives are interwoven into an unimaginable system of exchange, connecting us with others across the expanse of time and space, and within that matrix suffering and grace, sin and redemption, isolation and intimacy become indistinguishable. And the great switchboard where that exchange is forever taking place – the Grand Central Station in that mystery of grief and grace – is the Cross of Christ. And at every Mass we are invited to make that place our true home. For as Paul says in 1 Corinthians:

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. (1 Cor 10:16-17)

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