Thursday, 25 October 2012


There was a striking reading at Mass on 21 October, from the Book of Isaiah (53:10-11). It read:
"The Lord has been pleased to crush his servant with suffering. If he offers his life in atonement, he shall see his heirs, he shall have a long life and through him what the Lord wishes will be done. His soul’s anguish over, he shall see the light and be content. By his sufferings shall my servant justify many, taking their faults on himself."
I have written about "sacrifice" here, here and here, but there is so much more to discover. How do we "offer" something to God – especially suffering? In the case of pain, all one wants to do is to get rid of it, so it is easy to imagine offering it to God to take away. But this is not what is meant.

There is no shame in begging, if it be God's will, for some pain to be taken away. But what if it remains with us? Does it mean that God doesn't care? This is part of the larger question of suffering in the world, including innocent suffering. I would try to answer it in several steps. First, by arguing that there is no suffering greater than the suffering of one man. Second, that Jesus is that one man than whose suffering there is no greater in the world. Third, that the aim of God in becoming incarnate is to incorporate us into his own extended body. Fourth, that he even wants to involve us in the process by which we are incorporated – that is, our own salvation.

The first point was well put by the philosopher Wittgenstein. Suffering does not accumulate. Each of us suffers only what we are given to suffer, and no more. I may sympathize with my neighbour, and that sympathy may add to my own
suffering, but I do not experience his suffering. Thus in order to experience the suffering of all men, Jesus does not have to accumulate the sufferings of each individual, but simply experiences all the individual possibilities of human suffering in his own (singular) person).

As for the suffering that God does not take away in answer to prayer, or the suffering that just happens, all of this is incorporated into Christ's suffering in one of two ways – either unconsciously, or consciously.

If unconsciously, then Christ suffers alongside, or "keeps company" with all those who suffer; he is "present in" their suffering, until the moment they recognize him there and reach out to him. He wants to accept on their behalf the suffering as payment to redeem the world from sin. But until they become conscious of what he is doing, they are not letting him do so, not letting him bear the weight and "make their burdens light".

If consciously, then the one who suffers changes his viewpoint and accepts the pain as a gift – a gift because it enables him to work in Christ to redeem others. At this point the yoke becomes relatively easy and it is possible, as the saints tell us, to find joy in suffering, because there is no inner resistance to it, but rather an experience of the presence of Christ. Suffering has become sacramental.

To accept the pain is the same thing as to "offer" it. It is this that God asks of me – simply to put up with, to accept, this unavoidable pain (not to enjoy it, of course), and therefore to offer him our acceptance of it in place of all those wills that resist him.

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