It was in the passion of Jesus that his sweat became like great drops of blood (Luke 22:44) and he bore the crown of thorns (John 19:5), reminders of the result of Adam’s ordeal (Genesis 3:18-19). Jesus did what Adam should have done.
“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:7-9).
Though Jesus was in the form of God, he “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-8).
Jesus completely emptied himself and demonstrated the love of God in all its fullness. The good news is that he rose from the dead, defeating death, hell, and the grave. Indeed, Jesus answered the question raised in the Garden of Eden: we can trust God. Unlike Adam, Jesus obeyed the Father and poured out his life for his bride. When we realize that the bride of Christ is the Church, and Jesus loved us so much, it’s almost too much to take in. Oh, how we are loved!
Jesus suffered and died that we might become a part of the family of God, become spiritually healed and share in his nature, but he didn’t eliminate suffering. The work of Christ doesn’t guarantee the lack of suffering. No, he changed the meaning of suffering. We are now joined through baptism with Christ in his death and resurrection and have become intimately joined to him, so much so that we are his body. Because of our union with Christ, even our suffering is changed; it becomes redemptive by virtue of “being in Christ.” Pope St. John Paul II said in his Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris ( On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering) that “in the cross of Christ not only is the redemption accomplished through suffering, but also human suffering itself has been redeemed” (Salvifici Doloris, 19). In other words, suffering is worth something if it is in union with Christ.
At the point where Jesus seems to be the weakest, the complete self donation of the Cross, the most powerful act of the passion, the resurrection, took place. So too, our weakness is capable of being filled with the same power manifested on the Cross. St. Paul experienced much weakness and suffering, however his answer from Christ in regards to his own infirmity was “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Then St. Paul could proclaim, “I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9). John Paul II, a man acquainted with suffering said, “It is suffering, more than anything else, which clears the way for the grace which transforms human souls” (Salvifici Doloris, 26).
Rejoicing in Suffering?
St. Paul understood that our life is a cooperation with the work of Christ when he said to the Colossians, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1:24).
Think about that … Paul said that something is lacking in Christ’s afflictions. What could possibly be lacking in Christ’s afflictions? Your part! Again, John Paul II said, “the springs of divine power gush forth precisely in the midst of human weakness. Those who share in the sufferings of Christ preserve in their own sufferings a very special particle of the infinite treasure of the world’s redemption, and can share this treasure with others” (Salvifici Doloris, 27).
Paul knew completing what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ does not mean that the suffering of Christ is not complete. It means that the redemption, accomplished through satisfactory love, remains always open to all love expressed in human suffering. While Jesus achieved the redemption completely, he did not bring it to a close. The door is still wide open to participate with him in the redemption of the world.
We will see that our best opportunity is during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass where the meaning of suffering is most clearly understood. Jesus tells us that if we are to follow him we must deny ourselves and take up our cross daily (Luke 9:23).
Our lives become an imitation and participation in the love of the Trinity by offering up our complete lives in union with Christ. “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. Knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence” (2 Corinthians 4:8-11,14).
The Resurrection is our guarantee that we can trust our heavenly Father; we can participate in the life-giving love of the Trinity by laying our lives down for the sake of his kingdom. The fruit of our suffering is raised to a supernatural level; it becomes eternal in nature. As Eve’s love for Adam resulted in suffering during childbirth, it ultimately resulted in fruit, a son. So too Jesus “brought many sons to glory … through suffering” (Hebrews 2:10).
It is in the midst of suffering that we experience the love of God. We enter the very heart of the Trinity, and it is there that we come to know God. Christ allows us to participate in his cross because that is his means of allowing us to participate in the exchanges of the Trinity, to share in the very inner life of God. Mary, the mother of Jesus said “yes” to God prior to the Incarnation. This “yes,” her fiat would result in pain. Simeon told her “a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Luke 2:35).
But what was the fruit of Mary’s suffering? Life for the entire world.
The suffering and death of Jesus does not mean that we won’t suffer. In fact, we are told that we can expect some suffering if we follow him. Jesus doesn’t remove all suffering from us; he changes our suffering and makes it redemptive. Jesus empowers us with his life and enables us to love as he loves by offering our lives in union with him.
The most perfect place to offer our suffering in union with Christ is during the Mass. It is in the Mass that we fully participate in the mystery of Calvary. The Mass is divided up into two main movements, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. After the readings from Scripture and the homily, the focus moves from the pulpit or lectern to the altar. The altar is the place where the sacrifice of Jesus is offered. It’s important to remember that the Paschal mystery of Christ cannot remain only in the past, as he suffered and died for all men. This redemptive event is eternal and transcends time making it a historically unique moment.
We participate in this unique moment by way of a sacrament. Time is mysteriously suspended, as the past, present, and future converge into the most important event in history. When we participate in the Mass, the liturgy not only recalls the events that saved us, but actualized them in the present.
The Great Exchange
Bishop Emeritus Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska, in his book A Shepherd Speaks, recalls a very old prayer that speaks of Mass as an admirabile commercium, or a “marvelous exchange” (pg. 290-291). Each of the two parts of Mass is an intimate exchange with God. In the first part, the Liturgy of the Word, we exchange words with God. We speak to him in prayer and he speaks to us in his word. In the second part, the Liturgy of the Eucharist, we bring to God our bread, wine, and offerings. These represent our work, our tears, our joys, and yes … our suffering. The bread used during Mass is referred to as “the host,” derived from the Latin hostia, which means “victim.”
When the host is placed on the paten, usually a plate made of precious metal; it is elevated and offered to the Father by the Son. The deacon or priest pours wine into a chalice and adds a drop of water. The wine stands for Christ and the water humanity. The image here is that our humanity is lost and totally immersed in his divinity. We truly are “in Christ.”
It is at this point in the Mass where our attention should be completely focused on offering ourselves in union with Christ. This is the moment where our minds and hearts dare not wander. It is at this precious moment when our cares and suffering are consciously united with Christ and we choose to love as he loved in self-donating love. The priest invites the assembly to join him in one accord in praying, “that our sacrifice may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.” While Christ is the one sacrifice on the altar, offering up their lives in union unites the laity to him with his.
“Then at the climax of the Mass, Christ takes our worthless gifts and changes them, through the invocation and blessing of the Holy Spirit and the words of institution, spoken by the ordained priest, into his gift of himself to God. Thus, our gifts, joined to his, become of infinite worth and value. This is what makes each Mass, even when imperfect with defective music, ceremonies, rubrics or homily, infinitely meritorious before God” (A Shepherd Speaks, pg. 291).
The great exchange has taken place and all things have become new and “all things work together for the good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). Indeed, when we participate with Christ by offering our lives in sacrificial union with him we enter the heart of the Trinity and can truly say, “I have come to know his love.”
Are you suffering now? Do not despair, this is your opportunity to draw close to Christ and entrust yourself to God (1 Peter 2:23; 4:19). It is by picking up your cross and following Christ that we come to know him more deeply. We should leave each celebration of the Mass knowing that we have found and participated in the meaning of suffering. Armed with this knowledge of the nature of suffering, we can go through anything and need not despair.
What is the worst thing that has ever happened on earth? Deicide, the crucifixion of God. What was the result? The salvation of the world. If the apparent worst thing resulted in the best thing, then what can God bring out of your situation?
The Suffering & Mass series was originally published in Scripture and the Mystery of the Mass, published by Emmaus Road Publishing. It is republished on The Great Adventure Blog with permission from Emmaus Road Publishing.
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Suffering & Mass: The Great Exchange – Part 1
Suffering & the Mass: The Great Exchange – Part 2
Suffering & the Mass 3: The Need for the Cross
Suffering & the Mass 4: From the Beginning