Tomorrow we begin the Easter Triduum, and Lent comes to its close. The whole point of Lent is to repent, to look inward and reconcile ourselves to the Savior who was willing to undergo brutality beyond description, just so we could be happy and free. Yes, of course it was all about forgiveness of sins, and life eternal with the Father in Heaven. But upon closer examination, the bottom line of all of that is happiness and freedom. For eternity.
The older I get (and saying things like that is probably a sure sign that I really am getting older) the more I realize how much suffering there is around me. As a child, I was oblivious to the suffering of others. As a teen and even as a young adult, unless it directly affected me, I still wasn’t terribly aware of what those around me were going through.
But the past few years have been transformational for me, to say the least. I have watched my friends go through utter agony with stepchildren, in-laws, homicidal spouses, teen children rebelling, divorce, and more. I myself have walked through the deaths of my father-in-law and my own father, the death of several beloved pets, a Category 3 hurricane on a small island, the alcoholism of a close family member, a battle with the IRS, financial insecurity, and, oh yeah, our house burned down. There are a couple other things I won’t go into here. So I have learned a few things about suffering.
The first thing I have learned is that Job’s friends were no different than many folks today. The minute someone seems to be experiencing difficulties, well-meaning friends tell them to pray harder, pray more, have more faith. Well, on the surface, that’s all good advice. But when someone has screamed out to God until they can’t utter another word, then I honestly don’t think "pray harder" is the ticket. As far as having more faith, well, most people wouldn’t be praying their hearts out to God if they didn’t believe!
For example, a precious friend of mine recently went through a somewhat nasty divorce. Now, this woman is a powerful, passionate, ‘sold-out’ woman of God. She loves the Lord with all of her being. But the unfaithfulness and violence of a spouse will cause anyone agony, regardless of their level of faith. She called me, desperate for someone to just listen to her, without passing judgment. She had been told by several close friends from her church that she just wasn’t praying and believing hard enough!!! So I listened, and then I gently explained to her the Catholic view of suffering.
Catholics do not view suffering as a curse, but as a blessing. As an opportunity to unite our lives with that of our Lord and Savior, and offer it up to God. We believe in embracing our pain, knowing that any pain or suffering we may endure in our lifetime cannot possibly compare to that of Jesus dying on the cross. We offer it up for ourselves, we offer it up for others. We find meaning in suffering. It is our opportunity to ‘take up our cross’. Now, we’re not masochists!! But we do understand that it really does rain on the just and the unjust alike, and we don’t find it necessary to question the quality of our prayer life or our salvation with every affliction.
My friend was amazed. This was the first time she’d ever heard this, and it was the first comforting thing anyone had said to her. And I think that’s the problem with American theology. We want to believe in a God who will bless us with all good things, if we just believe hard enough. We want our salvation handed to us on a silver platter, as it were.
God could have done that. He could have just said ‘Hey, look at all those prayerful people down there. I think I’ll just make it all okay.’ But instead, for reasons we may not fully understand until we get to Heaven, he chose to offer up his only Son on a cross. He chose suffering to save us. And I think that’s really important. God never promised us financial prosperity, or emotional bliss, or perfect health. He promised us Heaven, and within that promise, we are guaranteed suffering. But only for a while, and He is always there with us in those times of darkness. We are never alone.
So, as we enter this Easter Triduum, we will celebrate the Passover Supper of the Lord, and we will meditate on his Passion as he ascended the hill to Calvary. We will, as best we can as mere mortals, walk with Him on His way to the Cross. And if we pay close attention, we will come to understand that our suffering has meaning, because His suffering had meaning. We will find joy in His Passion, joy that will be consummated on Easter, as we celebrate His resurrection from the dead, His victory over sin. We will be reminded that happiness and freedom truly are ours, if we only unite ourselves with Him, both suffering Paschal Lamb and Glorious Resurrected King.