“I fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for His body’s sake, which is the Church.” Colossians i. 24.
There are few things, if any, that cause as much pain and dismay as suffering, especially the suffering of the innocent and of children. But all are affected in some way by such trials in life. These trials turn some away from God, while through suffering many discover God’s closeness and mercy.
In a sermon for Holy Week, John Henry Newman dwelt on the bodily sufferings of Jesus Christ who, being the Eternal Word, suffered in our nature a most violent death for our atonement. As the prophet Isaiah foretold: “He alone trod the wine-press” (Is 63:3) and He was lifted upon the cursed tree. Newman writes that in a mysterious way all the sinful world needs grace, regeneration from sin, hope, light and peace, all which flow from the font of blood:
“A work of blood is our salvation; and we, as we would be saved, must draw near and gaze upon it in faith, and accept it as the way to heaven. We must take Him, who thus suffered, as our guide; we must embrace His sacred feet, and follow Him. No wonder, then, should we receive on ourselves some drops of the sacred agony which bedewed His garments; no wonder, should we be sprinkled with the sorrows which He bore in expiation of our sins!”
Newman reminds us that all who follow Christ must suffer, but the saints, his chosen instruments, have done this in a special way, and preeminent among them are the Holy Innocents, His Mother, and the Apostles. He was still a baby when the Virgin was told: “Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also.” [Luke ii. 35.] And James and John: “Are ye able,” He said, “to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” [Matt. xx. 22.]
Jesus instructed his disciples that the baptism of the Spirit and cup of Communion with Him demanded also a cup of agony and baptism of blood. However, speaking to all, Jesus would say:
“Whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after Me, cannot be My disciple.” [Luke xiv. 27.]
Both St. Peter and St. Paul bid us rejoice in having communion with the sufferings of Christ ([1 Pet. iv. 12, 13.] Newman comments: “And though he [Paul] is speaking especially of persecution and other sufferings borne in the cause of the Gospel, yet it is our great privilege, as Scripture tells us, that all pain and trouble, borne in faith and patience, will be accounted as marks of Christ, grace-tokens from the absent Saviour, and will be accepted and rewarded for His sake at the last day”
Newman explains how the Gospel sheds light upon human suffering, teaching us that Christ turned punishment into a privilege, even bodily pain “which is the most mysterious of all” which reaches even children who have never actually sinned. All of us at length will die and death may be ushered in by disease which may involve pain.
Whereas worldly men put aside the thought of this suffering: “Christians may bear to look at it without undue apprehension; for this very infliction, which most touches the heart and imagination, has (as I have said) been invested by Almighty God with a new and comfortable light, as being the medium of His choicest mercies towards us. Pain is no longer a curse, a necessary evil to be undergone with a dry submission or passive endurance—it may be considered even as a blessing of the Gospel, and being a blessing, admits of being met well or ill.”
Consider, thus, how you face pain and suffering in life, and meditate on the bodily sufferings of Christ to embrace illness and hardships in union with Him. In part two of this reflection we will examine our response to suffering and reflect on Christ’s passion in the garden and on the Cross.