The Christian meaning of suffering is one of the big subjects of discussion in our world today, especially relating to the topic of euthanasia, physician-assisted dying or assisted death. Very often at the centre of this discussion is suffering that is prevalent and endured by so many.
At the very beginning of these reflections it needs to be noted that suffering is an evil. In other words, suffering is not to be sought after; it is to be avoided at all cost, and every effort should be made to alleviate and overcome it. In her official teaching the church affirms the meaninglessness of human suffering unless it is seen in light of Jesus’ healing death and resurrection.
It is central to Christian faith that the world has been redemed through the suffering of Christ. “By suffering for us Christ not only gave us an example so that we might follow in his footsteps, but he also opened up a way. If we follow this path, life and death are made holy and acquire a new meaning. . . . For since Christ died for everyone, and since all are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery. . . . It is therefore through Christ and in Christ, that light is thrown on the mystery of suffering and death which, apart from his Gospel, overwhelms us” (Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes 22).
There we see how Christians are called to actively alleviate suffering, especially as it results from unjust social and political structures; and whenever possible we are to eradicate its causes: “Christian charity should search out, comfort and care for them and give them assistance that will relieve their needs” (Vatican II, Laity 8).
The church teaches further: “Christian charity is extended to all without distinction of race, social condition, or religion, and seeks neither gain nor gratitude. Just as God loves us with a gratuitous love, so too the faithful in their charity should be concerned for people, loving them with that same love with which God sought out humanity” (Vatican II, Missionary Activity 12).
As we look closely at the reality of human suffering and sickness, a reality that is all around us, there can be a tendency to become negative, discouraged, depressed and bitter. In the midst of all this suffering, our faith reminds us that Christ has redeemed the world through his suffering, and that suffering is part of our journey. Jesus did say: “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Lk l4:27).
In his letter to the Colossians St. Paul gives a good, clear meaning of sickness and suffering: “I am now rejoicing in my suffering for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ‘s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (1:24).
Applying this to ourselves, it is not that we are the redeemers. Rather, in a sense the Lord has left a space for us so that we can suffer along with him. And, in our suffering, we can contribute to what has to be undergone by Christ for the sake of his body, the church. We are really co-workers with Christ.
One of the unique and special ways by which we become co-workers is through suffering. What this is saying in the mystery of redemptive suffering is that God in Christ has shared our darkness and transformed it utterly; and that through Christ our pain and loss can become a participation in the salvation of the world.
This entire matter is summed up beautifully for us in the opening prayer of mass celebrated for the sick and suffering: “Father, your Son accepted our sufferings to teach us the virtue of patience in human illness. Hear the prayers we offer for our sick sisters and brothers. May all who suffer pain, illness or disease realize that they are chosen to be saints, and know that they are joined to Christ in his sufferings for the salvation of the world.”
The church‘s prayer is a reflection of the church’s belief. We pray for the elderly, sick and suffering that they may know they are joined to Christ in his sufferings for the salvation of the world; we pray that they realize they are chosen to be saints.
Looking back over these reflections we see the gift, the blessing of suffering in our lives. Not that we have to look for it, but we accept it and celebrate it for what it is in reality: union with the sufferings of Christ. In fact it needs to be said that the elderly, sick and suffering are a special group, a necessary group in the community of God’s people. Their presence is needed for the salvation of God’s people, and we need to be grateful.
In the Catholic community we are blessed with a special sacrament to help the elderly, sick and suffering live their special vocation. The vocation of the sick and elderly is to close life well. We have the sacrament of the anointing of the sick and elderly precisely to help people live their vocation.
As we reflect on the vocation of the sick and elderly among us we are naturally led to ponder deeply the role and importance of caregivers. Jesus did say: “I was sick and you visited me.” Caregivers carry out a very important ministry in that request of Jesus, not only on their own behalf, but also on behalf of all of us. Their ministry is actually a special vocation exercised on behalf of everyone, and of faithful service on behalf of the Lord of Life.
The Christian meaning of suffering, lived together with the merciful and risen Christ, takes on enormous spiritual value. It becomes a spiritual good for the church and for the world; it opens before people the treasures of grace and redemption. The world is redeemed through suffering — that of Jesus and that of God’s people.
Wiesner is the retired bishop of Prince George, B.C.