In the second reading today St. Paul invites us to join with him in suffering for the sake of the Gospel. Do we have the faith to respond to this invitation by dealing with suffering in a redemptive way?
It is fitting that the first reading is all about faith. Abraham had the strong, trusting faith in the providence of God to set out on a journey into the unknown that made him our ancestor in faith.
The invitation from St. Paul invites us also to a journey of faith. St. Paul met Jesus in person, on the road to Damascus. Paul, who was persecuting the followers of Jesus, experienced the compassion, the forgiveness, and the acceptance of Jesus. The one he thought was dead appeared to him, spoke to him and forgave him. Jesus invited Paul to believe in him, and to follow him in suffering for the sake of the Gospel. That encounter transformed him from Saul to Paul, and eventually empowered him to, like Jesus, give his life for the sake of the Gospel.
The transfiguration of Jesus in the Gospel links with Paul’s invitation. The purpose of that scintillating theophany was to take away the scandal of the cross, to prepare the disciples for how God often works best in our lives through suffering. In the midst of all that glory, brightness and exhilaration which Peter wanted to cling to, Moses and Elijah appeared speaking to Jesus about his imminent suffering, his death on the cross, his passing in Jerusalem. The message is clear — the way to that glory, for Jesus, and for us, is through the cross, through some kind of faithful suffering.
Rabbi Harold Kushner, who wrote the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, concludes that the best answer to the mystery of suffering in life is that God does not take away our pain. Rather, God gives us the faith and the strength to go through that pain and find both blessing and profound meaning in that suffering that now becomes redemptive.
The way of the world is to try to avoid pain and inconvenience. Is that not at the root of the plague of abortion in our society, and also rampant addictions? Children are now seen as an inconvenience by many, rather than as a gift from God. And addiction can be defined as “an attempt to avoid legitimate suffering.” We seek to medicate our pain, rather than choosing to be fully human and deal with our pain. Too often we try to ignore the suffering within, rather than facing it and finding meaning, thereby transforming it into redemptive suffering for the sake of the Gospel.
That pain begins usually at a young age, when the love we need to flourish as a human being is not there in our family of origin, or in our surroundings as a child. There may be neglect, abuse, ridicule, lack of appreciation and affection — a myriad of ways that our needs to be loved, to belong and to be valued, are not met.
Psychologists tell us we can respond to that hurt in two ways: fight or flight. If we are anger-based people, we will immediately and instinctively retaliate and fight back. If we are fear-based people, we will flee. We can do that in a myriad of ways — alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, silent treatment, etc.
Jesus offers us another way, based on faith, and that is forgiveness. He teaches us to have faith, to enter into that pain, to hold that pain, to pray about it, to share our pain with trusted others, and to give that pain back to those who caused it with love that is pure forgiveness. That alone breaks the cycle of violence that rules much of our world. That alone is the way to freedom, peace, new life, and even joy.
As impossible as that may seem, St. Paul reminds us that we are not on our own: “This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel.”
Paul is saying that the One who had power over even death, gives us that same power not to fight back or run away, but to deal with our suffering and pain in a way that will be light to the world.
Velma’s future brother-in-law sexually molested her at the age of 14. She carried resentment toward him for 14 years, until this man’s son molested her daughter. They moved to another community. Later, her granddaughter was abused by one of her own sons, the victim’s uncle. Then Velma fell apart. The memory of what she went through, all her anger and resentment, became too much for her to carry. She sought help from her pastor, who put her through a 12-step healing process. She learned to express her hurt toward her abuser following Matthew 18:15. She met with him in the presence of the pastor, read a letter to her abuser sharing her feelings at what happened, and forgiveness took place on both sides, leading to healing.
Velma’s story shared at a 12-step pilgrimage revealed the underlying truth that her actions were impossible, except through the power of the Holy Spirit. This truly is the new way that Jesus brought about, the transfigured way he invites us all into, the way of the cross.
The eucharist makes present for us the sacrificial love of Jesus on the cross that Moses and Elijah addressed on the mountain. It also empowers us to be like Jesus, to deal with our own pain as he did, through forgiveness, rather than to fight or flee.
So let us have faith, believe in Jesus and accept St. Paul’s invitation to join with him in suffering for the sake of the Gospel.
Sylvain Lavoie, OMI, Archbishop Emeritus of the Archdiocese of Keewatin-The Pas, is chaplain at the Star of the North Retreat House in St. Albert, Alta. He continues to live out his motto, Regnum Dei Intra Vos (the kingdom of God is among you), which is his overriding focus and passion.