April 1, 2020
Who would have thought that an event in far-away China would dramatically change the lives of everyone in the world? Who could have foreseen a situation where people—for their own safety and health, as well as the safety and health of others, would not be allowed to participate in the Church’s liturgies of Sunday Eucharist, Baptisms, Anointing of the Sick, and the Mass for Christian Burial? Who would have anticipated that all these traumatic life changes would happen at a time that coincides with the Church’s most holy time of the Triduum and the Easter Season?
Suffering and an Opportunity
In itself, suffering is an evil that we would never wish on anyone. We have ample evidence of real suffering in our world at this time. Thousands of deaths and countless sick people, grieving families and friends, overworked medical and essential personnel, innumerable people suffering from anxiety, fear and depression, elderly and people of frail health dreading the future, people worried about lost jobs and inadequate income…the list goes on and on.
Given the situation in which we are living, we have an opportunity to unite our sufferings to those of Christ, especially in this time of the liturgical year of Lent and Easter. United in our REAL suffering, we wait in hope, trusting in our God to bring new light and life where now we see only darkness and death.
Readings for Passion Sunday
Our readings this Sunday contain their own stories of suffering. The servant in Isaiah suffers as he continues to be faithful to God’s call to speak a word of love to those who will hear. Instead, he is met with hard hearts and endures suffering in the taunts and blows of his hearers. He endures this punishment—“setting his face like flint”—because he continues to trust that the God who calls him to this service will not desert him, even though he has no “felt” evidence of God’s presence in the midst of his suffering.
Psalm 22 reverberates with the eerie refrain, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” The psalmist, like the suffering servant in Isaiah, endures much suffering on God’s behalf as he faithfully tries to carry out God’s will. As he does this, he experiences only rejection and violence at the hands of others. The God who has called him seems strangely absent, but the psalmist continues to trust and hope in God’s faithfulness, believing that at some point God will reveal himself as faithful and true.
The gospel story of the passion reveals Jesus as a man of suffering in the tradition of the suffering servant and the psalmist. Like them, Jesus has faithfully followed God’s call to be God’s image of love and forgiveness in the face of hard heartedness. Like the suffering servant and the psalmist, Jesus experiences the criticism, rejection, and violence of those who would cling to old ways of existence rather than accepting the eternal nourishment (John 9: woman at the well), the new sight (John 9: the man born blind), and the new life (John 11: raising of Lazarus) that we have heard proclaimed over the last 3 weeks of Lent. Like his Old Testament predecessors, Jesus endures real suffering—three times he asks God to spare him, if possible—that, in his case, leads to death, death on a cross. Jesus’ dying words on the cross in Matthew’s Gospel—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—remind us that Jesus is like us in all things but sin (Hebrews 4:15), and that he really did suffer and that he really did die. This eerie cry also reminds us that as Jesus suffered and died, he experienced what countless people experience when they suffer deeply: the feeling that God has deserted them, that they are forgotten, that they are alone. It is important to point out, however, that like the suffering servant and the psalmist, the last words of Jesus are spoken as a prayer in trust and hope that even in this “seeming absence,” God is present and will not allow suffering and death to have the last word.
The second part of the Philippians reading foreshadows God’s faithfulness. Like the other readings this Sunday, it begins with the story of the suffering servant who carries out God’s will, but who is met with rejection, suffering, and death. But as the reading continues, we anticipate the full message that we will proclaim with Easter joy next week: God has greatly exalted his servant Jesus; God has bestowed upon him the name above every other name; God has raised this faithful servant from suffering and death! Through this action, God reveals himself as a faithful God of love, who is present even when we do not “experience” him in our sufferings, who will not allow suffering and death to have the last word. Our God is a faithful God, worthy of trust, in our current situation of suffering brought on by the corona virus, and, ultimately, even in our future death which will ultimately come for each of us.