Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Meaning of Suffering

Readings for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, year B.
1. Job was an upright man whom the Lord permitted to be tested through personal disaster, the death of his children, and through grave illness. Although Job strove to remain righteous by recognizing everything that he had was a gift from God, he nevertheless arrived at the point which we hear about in the first reading. The days were going by fast, the nights slowly. We may have the benefit of all kinds of technology, but Job’s experience is a universal human experience of suffering. We too may have had times in which the seconds seem to drag by, but the days pass all too quickly and there is no rest from our troubles.
2. The problem of suffering of whatever kind is the subject matter of the book of Job. The friends of Job try to convince him that he is guilty of some sin. Shall you say: "My teaching is pure, and I am clean in your sight"? But oh, that God would speak, and open his lips against you, And tell you that the secrets of wisdom are twice as effective: So you might learn that God will make you answer for your guilt (Job 11:4-6) But Job cannot identify any such sin. When Job breaks down and asks God to explain why things are the way they are, God does not answer his question. Instead God asks Job to explain the universe, which of course Job cannot. In the end of the Book, God restores Job to his previous happiness. The philosophical conclusion of the book is that suffering is a mystery not fully comprehensible.
3. At the time of Jesus most people held that illness and other disastrous problems were a direct result of sin, much like the friends of Job tried to convince him. Jesus does not denounce all of this kind of thinking, but neither does He go with it. (To the Paralyzed man, Jesus said your sins are forgiven (Mark 2:5); but regarding the man born blind Jesus said Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him (John 9:3) As Catholics, we believe that in the big picture, suffering entered the world through sin. Nevertheless not all suffering is the result of a particular sin. As human beings however, we must admit that we often try to explain our suffering in that regard. We ask God “Why me? What did I do to deserve this...?” And there is not always an answer. It is true that God permits the suffering. Nothing continues to exist without at least God’s silent permission. But He does not cause it. Scripture says Because God did not make death, nor does He rejoice in the destruction of the living (Wisdom 1:13).
4. With the advent of Jesus, however, suffering undergoes a change. When Jesus confronts suffering or illness, He heals the person. Regardless of what is the cause, sin or a natural problem, He heals it, such as He did for Simon Peter’s mother in law and all the others who came to the house (see Mark 1:29-34). Jesus’ mercy went out to those who were oppressed or possessed by evil spirits. It only took a word from Him and the demons left people alone.
5. When we read of these miraculous healings we might be amazed. In our modern, scientific manner we might be convinced that there are perfectly natural explanations to all these miracles. But miracles still happen. I saw someone on her deathbed with cancer. Her organs were failing, her skin color was bright orange, and she burning up with the fever that often precedes death. I anointed her and left fully expecting to never see her alive again. But two weeks later she was back in Church completely well and no trace of cancer in her body.
6. Likewise I knew someone so oppressed by evil that even saying the prayer Come Holy Spirit caused him great distress, and being sprinkled with Holy Water made him become as stiff as a board. Yet later, through the power of Jesus he was freed from the oppression and able to praise God freely.
7. The change that overtook suffering when Jesus appeared is not simply that He exercised authority and power to free people from their pain and sorrow and shared that power with others. Rather Jesus , in His own Passion and Death Jesus gave suffering a new meaning. Previously, suffering was for the most part a sign of sin, a result of the Fall of Adam and Eve. But now, it has become a means of being united with God. It does not indicate that suffering is never the result of sin, it means that Jesus has taken the curse and turned it into a blessing because in our crosses, we become like Jesus Himself.
8. Our world is in great need of the transformation of suffering. The suffering of the innocent often leads to people rejecting God, whereas in Christ we can turn to God for healing. And despair over suffering has lead many people to embrace such sins as suicide and euthanasia. I am not speaking only in terms of their interior acceptance, but in practice. For example in some places, it is possible for a doctor to administer poisons to an elderly or sick person. Such attitudes and behavior have severe consequences for our society. Could a doctor remain committed to health if he or she regularly administered death? Would not the insurance industry be tempted to require the death of certain types of patients in order to avoid costly treatment? (It has not happened, but what if it did?) And what would happen to us, if we as Christians rejected the Cross or refused our share in the cross of Christ? (Make no mistake that is what it would be. ) Would our sufferings truly be over because we avoided them in this world? Are we to become so short sighted that we would fail to see the big picture of eternity? We are not made only for this life, but forever.
9. On the other hand, those who unite themselves to Christ, even if they suffer have hope, for there is nothing which can separate from God’s love in Jesus Christ. There is hope that the Lord can cure us, and He can. But there is still hope if the Lord chooses to delay our healing until the resurrection on the Last Day, when every tear will be wiped away. Suffering is indeed a mystery, but it is not without meaning and grace. The cross is the instrument of our salvation and it is the means of our union with the entire Jesus Christ. Through Christ, through His passion and death, suffering has been transformed into power and thus been overcome.

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