According to the church calendar, Easter is behind us and we progress toward the day of Pentecost. Easter has deep meaning for me. Jesus was not included in the season in my growing up years and the opportunity to focus on him during this time of year has made it a rich time for me. The ancient themes of purgation, illumination, and union are imbedded in the rituals of the season. Many make a sacrifice during Lent in order to create the space to center our thoughts on the gifts of the cross. We look to the illumination that comes through this practice and to the thrill of union as we celebrate the resurrection on Easter morning.
I love the manner in which it draws the eyes of our hearts to Jesus. The church with which we worship offers a Maundy Thursday service; a commemoration of the last supper and the washing of the feet of the disciples. We meet on Good Friday when the windows and altar are draped as we enter into the death of Christ. Then on Easter morning, the trumpet sounds, and the drapes are removed to let the light shine in. The ritual is beautiful!
There is particular significance for me in the 40 days of Lent. The sacrifice during Lent signifies the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness fasting. It is a time of preparation and deprivation. His was not an easy ministry or an easy life–it was a life that included suffering. He makes no secret of the fact that a life chosen in his service will include hardship. We may be familiar with the command to “Take up your cross and follow me,” but it has little concrete meaning to those of us in the 21st century. The crosses we encounter are those with which we decorate our walls or wear as jewelry. The cross is an instrument of suffering. Jesus suffered. This was his life and it is central to the lives of those of us who choose to follow him. Yet, this concept is foreign to our western culture. We resist the possibility of suffering—including our churches. We don’t want to face it in others or as a possibility for ourselves. We may not buy into the ‘prosperity gospel’ in a rational sense, but it comes to the surface when we are deprived. We rail against God for abandoning us or betraying us. We miss the fact that scripture is filled with the stories of servants of God who faced hardship. God did not save them from suffering. It is part of the package when we choose to walk with Christ. We fool ourselves when we think we are or “should” be immune. It is part of this world and we are in the world.
It is risky to address this issue. There are some of you who may be in the midst of deep suffering right now. I do not in any way want to minimize the pain you are experiencing. What I want to encourage is steadfastness in the way of being to which Christ calls us. We plead with God to remove or change something, but at the same time, we cling to God in the midst. If it does not happen as we ask, we allow ourselves to grieve, with all the emotion it entails—numbness, anger, sadness—we do this with God. It is only by inviting God into our pain that we can walk through it with God.
In my roles as spiritual director and counselor, I walk alongside many who wrestle with the role of suffering. “Why would a loving God…” Yet, the paradox is that as we look back to the times we have grown in our relationship with God, it often is in the midst of pain. It is in those times that we recognize our need for God. Insight is gained during a time of hardship that would not come to us during times of ease. It is at these times when our certainty is swept away, and the illusion of our control is exposed.
I’ve been “working” on suffering for a number of years as I seek to embrace it as a gift. In my times of silent retreat, I’ve learned the Ignatian perspective of the three levels of humility. The first level of humility is demonstrated by one’s desire to avoid displeasing Jesus. At this level we obey the law—we follow the rules. We avoid sinning. We don’t want to go to hell. The second level of humility progresses beyond the rules to committing to what Jesus asks of us. It is about doing what pleases him. An individual wants to enter into his work and follow his commands. It is similar to the way one would follow any great leader. This leader is admired and followed, but from a distance. The third level of humility involves entering fully into the way of Christ. It is about “being” rather than “doing” and involves being “all in.” It involves accepting a way of life that leads to being despised and rejected. It is at this level that one embraces the difficulties of life as the opportunity to join into the suffering of Christ.
This is counter to our way of viewing life. At worst, we rail against the abuse that God is meting out in allowing us to endure hardship. At the other end of the continuum, we want to explain away God’s part in it and attribute God’s involvement only to the happy times. Yet when we truly embrace the way of the cross, our eyes are fixed on Jesus. The events we endure—good or bad—do not sway who we are. We recognize this as a broken world and we do what we can to work alongside God as an instrument of peace and love. Does this mean that we are oblivious to our suffering or that of those we love? No! Jesus wept bitter tears and pleaded with God to let the cup pass from him. But when the suffering persisted, he moved forward in obedience and continued to love those he encountered.
That is how we enter into suffering and that is what it means to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. God may not remove the struggle but answers our pain with a sense of his presence and uses it for the kingdom as we allow it. I hope you have experienced the grace of God’s presence in your suffering. It occurs in different ways–we experience God’s arms around us or we have a deep sense of peace or we don’t feel so alone. God is truly with each of us each moment. We are never alone. God came to this earth to show us how to suffer and to triumph—that is the message of Easter.
Grace and peace to you,