March 31, 2020
The pandemic that we are experiencing has changed our lives and changed our world. Countless people around the world and in our own communities are suffering either from the corona virus itself, or from the consequences of the virus. These consequences give rise to much suffering as people grieve the loss of loved ones, and isolation from supports that we take for granted, such as friends and family, work and recreation, and liturgy and parish functions. Usual routines have been put on hold, anxiety is on the rise, and people fear the face of illness and death as never before.
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.
Our 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.