|Rev. Fr. Augustine Vallooran V.C.|
Opposites rule our life. Failure and success, pleasure and pain, agony and ecstasy toss us around. Life often seems a struggle to maintain the balance between the pattern of sunny days and dark nights, bright hopes and lonely frustrations, sinful pressures and holy longings. Now the big question: Are we forever condemned to this dichotomous destiny? Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?
The gospel message is clear that it is through these oscillations that the Holy Spirit is working in us. Suffering has always been a part and parcel of our earthly sojourn. The difference however is that with the Calvary event all of us are brought to the saving shadow of the Cross. It is indeed the pattern of death and resurrection that is being played out in our lives. The great hope of this saving pattern is clearly manifested in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus. The three occasions Jesus predicted His imminent Passion and Death, He concluded that He will be raised up to glory. “Jesus began to explain to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things… and that He must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” (Matthew 16:21)
St. Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit is in control of this saving pattern in our own lives leading it all to the same glorious end. “If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of His Spirit who lives in you.” (Romans 8:11) This is the basis of the Christian hope that should inspire and strengthen us at every moment of our struggle – a hope that will sustain us in patience for the Holy Spirit to complete His work in us. It is in this context that Pope Benedict XVI in his first Encyclical exhorted all those who believe in Jesus Christ to be patient with God.
“The One Who Endures To The End Will Be Saved” (Matthew 24:13)
Perhaps the one gospel account that highlights what patience with God requires is that of the Canaanite woman who seeks a healing for her daughter (Matthew 15:22-28). When Jesus was in the pagan territory of Tyre and Sidon, this non-Jewish woman came to Jesus pleading for mercy for her daughter who was sick. Jesus, we are told did, not even care to look at her or to respond to her. The disciples were amazed at the cold indifference of the Master in the face of human misery. They came recommending her case, requesting Jesus to have mercy on her. But Jesus responded by saying that He would have nothing to do with her for she was not a part of the select group of Israel that He was sent to minister to. This response again must have left the disciples bewildered for they had with their own eyes seen Jesus compassionate and ministering to even to the pagans. The woman refusing to be dissuaded persists in seeking mercy on her daughter. This time the reply of Jesus is most scandalizing as He speaks in what can be called rude language, saying, "It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs." (Matthew 15:26) The word 'dogs' was a term of contempt that the Jews used on the non-Jews. The last thing the people would have expected to hear from the Lord was such objectionable language! Equally amazing was the fact was that the woman refused to give up on Jesus or take offence at His words. She persisted in her appeal - "Yet, Lord, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table." (v. 27) It is at this moment that this bewildering sequence of events fall in place and begins to make a salvific sense. Jesus turns to her saying, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." (v. 28)
This is the one place where Jesus commends a person’s faith as great. What is the greatness of the faith of this woman? Even when she met with apparent indifference and painful rejections, she refused to give up on the Lord. She had a deep trust in Jesus and His compassion. She was not so concerned about her feelings as she was about what God could do for her.
As we meditate on the incident, we realize the Lord is building up her faith step by step in order to make her an icon of faith for all generations to come that they may not lose heart in the tiresome patterns of life but may be held firm in faith and prayer. When we are preoccupied with our own responses to the situations of life, we tend to take offence at the apparent rejection and indifference of God. That is when we shout at God and even deny His existence.
We may claim to believe in God but the fact is we do not expect Him to intervene in those difficult moments. There is a human arrogance that makes us inward looking and controlling. When we are stuck at the dead ends of our life, we slip into despair as we realize that on our own ability it is impossible to find a way ahead. This practical atheism renders religion irrelevant for people. We complain about the silence of God. This in fact reveals that we have grown into an over-dependence of our own thinking and we have come to imagine that God should toe our line of reasoning. We are incapable of waiting on God or seeking His Will to be worked in our lives. It is only in a trusting relationship with a loving God that we will be able to gauge God's ways. It was this trust that made the faith of the Canaanite woman great - a faith that supported her all the way through to receive her blessing and become a blessing.
“Perfected Through Sufferings” (Hebrews 2:10)
Jesus asked us to pray for the Heavenly Father's Will to be done in our lives. In the Letter to the Hebrews, there is a very significant teaching that all the trials that come our way are to be looked at as the disciplining will of our Heavenly Father. "My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by Him; for whom the Lord loves, He disciplines; He scourges every son He acknowledges." (Hebrews 12:5-6) The words used are disciplining, reproving and scourging and each of these express in an intense way the trials and troubles we go through in life. However negative these experiences sound, the word of God exhorts us to look at them in the context of the warm relationship between a father and son. The father loves the son to such an extent that he is ready to run the risk of being misunderstood in order to ensure the son’s growth to maturity and excellence. One can almost say that traditionally God is represented as a punishing God who is so exacting as to inflict pain for every failing. We often complain at the face of sufferings that God is being vengeful in order to keep the moral order intact.
One thing is definite however - both punishment and discipline are equally painful. Nevertheless punishment is meted out with a deathly motive of repaying us for our evil past while disciplining has a noble and hopeful motive of preparing us for a grand future. Again punishment is taken grudgingly as it looks back to the mistake of the past. Discipline however looks forward to the crown waiting at the finishing line of the race. The Word of God emphatically teaches us "Endure your trials as discipline; God treats you as sons. For what son is there whom His father does not discipline." (Hebrews 12:7) Let us not harbour the thought of a punishing God that can only depress our minds when we face trials. We must be grounded on the assurance that it is not a punishing God whom Jesus came to reveal to us; but a Father who has lavished love on us by giving His own Son to make sure that we should not perish - "For God so loved the world that He gave His only son that whosoever believes in Him may not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16)
This revelation of hope in every shadow is strewn across the pages of the New Testament. St. James tells us, "Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. And let perseverance be perfect, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing." (James 1:2-3) He continues to say this is the wisdom of God and if anyone lacks this, he should ask for it and it will be given by God. Especially when storms toss us around we can question everything and lose sight of God and the meaning and goodness of life. It is here that we must wait on God to grant us His superior wisdom that we may persevere and receive the fruit of this trial.
“It Is Good For Me That I Was Afflicted” (Psalm 119:71)
The Word of God speaks about a disciplining process detailing that the trials of our life lead us to perseverance and such perseverance moulds us to perfection and completeness in our faith in God - a faith that see us triumphant in the trials that must come. St. Paul following this vein of thought, writes - "We even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us." (Romans 5:4-5)
The New Testament unveils the mysterious purpose of God behind every trial in our life. Jesus spoke of the Father as the vine dresser who comes to the vineyard with a sharp knife meant for cropping the branches that thrive (Gospel of John Chapter 15). It is not an act aimed at destroying but to foster growth and life. The Father knows that the branch should not be growing wild for it will only be burdensome for the branch. It has to be pruned in order to bear fruit. Jesus wants us to understand every painful experience of our life as a pruning at the Hands of a God whose one concern is that we should attain the goal of life in all its fullness. Pruning is not for death but for growth. Every cut will yield another bunch of juicy fruits. Pain is the precondition for fruit-bearing.
Through the struggles and troubles of our life, the Holy Spirit of God is working to turn everything to our good. In every pain the seeds of joy are sown. In every failure, the seeds of victory are waiting to sprout out. The tender green offshoots of hope are already unfurling in the moments of our despair. Every cross opens the way to Resurrection. After the Cross of Christ was raised up on Calvary, no cross on our shoulders should lead us to despair. It is a matter of time before the Glory of the Resurrection will shine forth.
It is interesting that for a farmer, as great as the celebration of the harvest, is the day of sowing. The seeds when sown are lost in the slush of earth but that loss does not grieve the farmer. He sees the assurance of the golden harvest. It is a matter of time when the golden sheaves will spring out and dance with the wind! A person who perceives the mystery of the Cross and the Crown, of the Death and Resurrection unveiled by Jesus Christ, will be able to praise God even when his body burns in pain and his minds writhes in distress. Hence St. Paul congratulates the Philippians - "For you have been granted, for the sake of Christ, not only to believe in Him but also to suffer for him." (Philippians 1:29) Understanding this mystery to its full extent, Pope Benedict writes: “The newness of life brought by Easter, must be spread everywhere so that the thorns of sin, which wound the human heart, leave room for new shoots of Grace, of God's Presence and of His Love that triumph over sin and death."
“Crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20)
Since the rays of the Glory of Resurrection illumine the Way of the Cross, two comforting experiences are offered to us. Firstly, there is the assurance that every moment of suffering is a sharing in the Cross of Christ. St. Peter expressed this, "Beloved, do not be surprised that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as if something strange is happening to you. But rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ so that when His glory is revealed you may also rejoice exultantly… If you are insulted for the name of Christ blessed are you for Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you." (1 Peter 4:12-14)
The Word of God assures us that after the Resurrection of Christ, glory is not limited to the end of the tunnel but enlightens every step of the journey. The Light of the Holy Spirit brings warmth, strength and guidance to the heart. Therefore, those in pain and distress are able to feel the Comforting and Healing Presence of the Crucified and Risen Lord. The consoling thought that “I am not alone to bear the crushing burden of the cross, rather I am sharing in the Cross of the Crucified Lord floods our hearts with great comfort.” Loneliness at being abandoned even by God in the torturing moments of pain is the most unbearable despair. With God on our side every burden becomes light and worth bearing. Hence the invitation of Jesus, "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." (Matthew 11:29-30)
A companion priest shared with me his experience of being comforted at a distressing moment in his life. He was a zealous missionary doing much good work and having unstinted support from all quarters. One fine day, everyone turned against him based on information that was unverified. Even his superiors came hard upon him. He was shattered. He could not pray any more or concentrate on his responsibilities. He lost his sleep. All the time the question piercing his heart was, "How could even my superiors who knew me so well do this to me?" He became a mental wreck. Unable to continue his pastoral work, he went to make a retreat. Even there he was unable to pray! At one moment of desperation, he took the Bible and opened it and the first verse that flashed before his eyes was this exhortation of the Lord, "Take my yoke upon you... And you will find rest for yourselves." (Matthew 11:29) It dawned on him that he was indeed carrying a heavy yoke that was crushing him and he was not able to find any rest or relief. God is unquestionably true in His words but the promise was not fulfilled in his hour of need. He was crushed. He read the verse again and it struck him that rest is promised only to those who carry the yoke of Jesus: "Take my yoke upon you." It occurred to him that he was carrying a burden his superiors had placed on his shoulders. He was all the while questioning their motives and actions. That is why his heart was not open to the rest that Jesus offered. In repentance he accepted that yoke from the Hands of the Lord. The series of unfortunate happenings he understood was part of a pattern that was to lead him to a deeper experience of glory and salvation. Instantaneously his heart was flooded with heavenly comfort. He could forgive his superiors and felt free himself. He confided in me that this anointing of the Word of God moulded his entire attitude towards the sufferings of life.
“In The Lord Your Labour Is Not In Vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58)
The second comforting revelation of the Paschal Mystery is that as every suffering is our share in the Cross of Christ, we also get to inherit a share in the salvific effect of the Cross. The Cross of Jesus was destined for Him by the Father for the salvation of humankind. When we are chosen to have a share in that Cross, we become co-saviours with the Lord for those who are to benefit from Christ’s salvific victory. St. Paul expressed this clearly when he wrote to the Colossians, "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of His body which is the Church." (Colossians 1:24) When St. Paul says that there is something lacking in the sufferings of Jesus, he does not imply that Christ’s atoning death on the Cross was defective; rather he meant that the salvific effects of the Cross have not reached everyone. In the moments of his sufferings, Paul felt the call to be mystically united with Christ in order that the Father's Will that all men and women should be saved through Christ could be completed. Now it was not merely through his preaching and services but through his sufferings that he was ministering to the Colossians. This is a grand revelation that our sufferings are never wasted but have an eternal value. We can contribute our sufferings to the salvation of our fellow men when we offer our brokenness to the Cross of Christ.
St. Luke in the Resurrection narrative gives a detailed account of the journey of the two disciples, Cleopas and his companion, who were retreating from Jerusalem to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). It was indeed a withdrawal in despair. They had come to Jerusalem to meet Jesus and had committed their lives to Him, with great expectations. "We had hoped that He would establish the kingdom", they said. They suddenly found themselves thrust in the dark valley of the shadow of the cross of Calvary. They had given up on their Master altogether. "Our chief priests and rulers both handed Him over to sentence of death and crucified Him...it is now the third day since this took place." The memories of the horrific death of the Master were fresh in their minds. They felt great angry and yet could only stand helpless before the unjust and cruel designs of men in power. They were venting their frustrations about their own inability to move even a little finger in defense of Him on whom they had placed all their hopes for the future. In short they had failed just as all around them had failed them!
This Gospel account typifying the Resurrection theme generates hope as it presents in their miserable situation the Risen Lord was Himself present to them listening to them patiently. "While they were conversing and debating, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them." Without condemning them He led them gently to a clear understanding of the mystery of the Cross and Resurrection. "Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" He later broke the bread and fed them with Himself in the Holy Eucharistic experience. Being rid of all the burden of their hearts, they rejoiced exceedingly and became powerful witnesses of the Glory of the Lord. This is the Promise of Easter to every one of the disciples of Jesus! His Glorious Presence will accompany us even in the most painful and distressing moments of life. Though we may imagine that we are helpless and are unable to comprehend the vicissitudes life, we can remain in the assurance that God has not lost sight of us. He walks with us! He is in control having defeated death and darkness.
Let Us Pray:
Lord Jesus, we glorify You for Your Death and Resurrection. You gave Your Life for love of us. There is nothing that You held back from us. Yet in the moments of pain and failure, we became desperate imagining that life had failed us and that You too had abandoned us. We rebelled that You should punish us. Today we look to You, Jesus, innocent You were, yet You took up the penalty meant for us that in all our trials we may be vindicated. We thank You for the crosses of our life that mould us into Your perfect image. You transform that very cross into a crown. By the cross, we know that You are closest to us and You will make our sufferings and our very life into a blessing. As we tread this difficult path, we pray may Your Spirit lead us to hear Your voice and see Your Face and our hearts will burn with joy.