GOOD FRIDAY – The Message of Jesus’ Sufferings
Any path of spiritual growth, any way of healing and maturing, any wisdom which is worth anything, will have something to say of suffering. We can go further: it will have something to say about the meaning, message, and even value of suffering. This is a difficult one to get right but it is central to the mystery of following Jesus and it can easily be misunderstood. The Christian way at its best is not interested in pain, suffering, and death in ways that are perverted, queer, or odd. Of course it is not always at its best.
The growing pains of adolescence end when our bodies are fully grown. But we continue to grow in our spirits and in our hearts, in our souls and personalities. At least we are called to continue to grow in understanding, compassion, faith, and love. There is no limit to the growth of these things in us. We can refuse to grow and shut down our hearts in cynicism, bitterness or disappointment. That brings its own kind of pain. Or we can respond positively to the call to grow in love and understanding. And that brings pain with it too.
Little surprise then if, on the way of Jesus, we experience ‘growing pains’, a peculiarly human kind of suffering as we try to find our way through many limitations and difficulties, within and without. We can think of a seedling finding its way through the darkness and many obstacles before breaking through to the light of day. Jesus himself used this image: only if a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies can it bear fruit (John 12:24). And Paul reminds us that we must all negotiate many difficulties before we can enter the kingdom of heaven (Acts 14:22).
The cross never comes in the way we anticipate. If it did, it would not be the cross. So we really suffer deeply because we do not see the point of suffering in this way or in that, or because we do not see the point of it going on so long. Suffering never comes in the way we would have chosen for ourselves. It often attacks precisely those aspects and qualities that we most value. Suffering easily arouses our anger and dismay, fear and disgust. The suffering of others, especially children, makes us especially angry.
Jesus suffered for us and left an example for us to follow the way he took. That way led him through the valley of darkness – Gethsemane and Golgotha – before it took him to Easter and Pentecost. Those who follow him listen for his voice. And his authentic voice speaks, not in the first place of suffering, but in the first place of love. But love also necessarily means suffering. To love is to become tender and vulnerable, to open to the presence of another, to share the burdens and difficulties of another. To love means to open oneself to the possibility (the likelihood, the inevitability) of suffering. Those who love truth suffer for the truth. Those who love justice suffer for justice. Those who love peace suffer for peace. Those who love others suffer for others.
To understand Jesus’ sufferings we must speak not only of love but also of sin. The career of Jesus takes the road of suffering not just because it is love but because it is love in a sinful world. It has always happened so. It continues to happen so. The biblical authors speak of how the wise and just person excites envy, hatred, and violence in a sinful world. The person of principle excites envy, distrust, and opposition in a society of compromise.
In the difficulties and challenges of life we will be tested to the depths of our being. We can resist the challenge and become stuck on the road. We can turn away and fill our lives with distractions and comforts. Or, with God’s grace, we can follow the way of Jesus, hearken to the voice of his love, and throw our human story (sinful and compromised as it is) in with his, so that all might have life and have it to the full.
This is the message of Jesus’ sufferings – out of love he gave his flesh for the life of this sinful world. To see this is to know that any share in the mystery of his sacrificial love is a privilege and a strange joy. Christian hope, far from removing us from the reality of sin, suffering and death, enables us to face those enemies of the human race with clarity of mind and confidence of heart.