Lest the cross of Christ be made void

Third Sunday of the Year. Is 8:23-9:3; Ps 27:1,4,13-14; 1 Cor 1:10-13,17; Mt 4:12-23

“Lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” This emphatic warning has been translated slightly differently in the version of the Bible used in today's Second Reading. Here the final line reads, “so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning.” However, I think that the word ‘power’ conveys more forcefully and accurately what St. Paul is really saying, namely a warning against ‘emptying’ or ‘making void’ the very cross itself.

Now this warning about the power of the cross was the title of the third and final part of the important document Pope John Paul II ever wrote on the moral life. That document was called Veritatis Splendor, ‘the splendor of truth’, and Pope John Paul II himself became a kind of icon of the cross of Christ in the last days of his life. His body was crucified by suffering and disability, the lingering effects of an assassination attempt and Parkinson's disease. In the words of that chilling phrase drawn from the ‘wisdom of human eloquence’, the last days of the earthly life of the Holy Father might have been be considered a life ‘not worth living’. Yet the evidence for its supernatural power was shown especially in the signs that followed his death. In a great outpouring of grief, over five million people came to Rome to pay their last respects in person, and his funeral was watched on television by over two billion people. In the light of this witness to the centrality and fruitfulness of the cross, I thought that it would be worth devoting this brief homily to the ‘problem’ of suffering.

So what is the problem of suffering? This problem often takes the form of a popular question, “Why do bad things happen to good people, if there is a good God?” The question certainly puzzled the Jewish people of the Old Testament. Job, the good man crushed by suffering, cries out in anguish, complaining to God, “Does it seem good to you to oppress, to despise the work of your hands and favor the schemes of the wicked?” (Job 10:3) What Job is complaining about is an apparent injustice, or least a suspension of justice, in the way that bad things happen to good people and good things sometimes happen to bad people. Yet, as my professor at St. Louis University points out, Christians at some other times in history thought about the problem of suffering in a radically different way. The puzzle for Pope Gregory in the late sixth century was why good things happen to good people. He remarks, “holy people are more fearful of prosperity in this world than of adversity.” (Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, V, introduction). So Christians living fourteen hundred years ago were so convinced of the power of the cross that they worried if too many good things happened to them: they worried in case God did not love them enough. 

On the face of it, this appears to be an outrageous attitude. If we believe in a good God, surely we would expect God to want good things for His people. Yet did Christians have a wisdom in the sixth century that we lack today? Is there some reason why a loving God would permit suffering, not for its own sake, but for the sake of some larger goal? Well, my professor proposes a possible answer to this question in the form of modern parable. Imagine that we had never seen a hospital before, and did not understand what a hospital was for. Since hospitals tend to increase the pain of the patients, at least in the short term, we would conclude that hospitals were evil institutions set up to increase human suffering. Perhaps we would find it hard to imagine why any good race would create hospitals, if we could not see their purpose, namely that the suffering inflicted hospitals is for the sake of health and life. In an analogous way, at least some of the apparently undeserved suffering in the world can be understood in a medicinal and redemptive way. Our Faith tells that God created us for a good purpose, not principally for happiness in this brief and passing world, but for eternal happiness. What we need to enter this eternal happiness is, to a small extent, to come to know God and to love in the way that God loves - to become like God on a small scale. St. John tells us that “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love”(1 John 4:7-8). However, for a human heart to love with the love of God requires a radical transformation, a process which is not without pain, even extreme pain. The images given in Scripture are those of the heart ‘melting’ (as in Psalm 21 [22]) or being pierced (like the heart of Mary [Luke 2:35]). God does not remove suffering from life, but through the cross of Christ has made it the crucible or forge by which we are fashioned for everlasting life. This is why today's First Reading tells us that the land of Zebulum and Naphtali was first ‘degraded’, but in the end glorified, “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” That is the power of the cross. This is the cross that Pope John II embraced to the end, and which proved so fruitful even in this passing world. This is the cross that is the gateway for all of us to the Kingdom of Heaven.

May God gives us the graces we need to persevere amid suffering. May we have the grace to unite our sufferings to those of Christ. May God transform us through them and bring us safely to the final and lasting joys of his Kingdom.

Fr. Andrew Pinsent, St. Ambrose Church, St. Louis, 27th January 2008

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