Monday in Holy Week

Almighty God, whose dear Son went not up to joy but first He suffered pain, and entered not into glory before He was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ Your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, Monday in Holy Week, 220)
Walking in the way of the cross: Have you ever stopped to meditate upon that phrase, its meaning, its implications? Since the Roman cross upon which Jesus is crucified is a torture device, intent to inflict immense suffering on criminals, shall we think of "walking in the way of the cross" as a willingness to suffer? Perhaps. St Paul writes: "For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake." (Phil. 1:29 ESV) The theme of suffering seems to be a central component to faith in Christ. The late spiritual writer Henri Nouwen writes:
In his [Jesus'] immense loneliness, he fell on his face and cried out: "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by" (Matthew 26:39). Jesus couldn't face it. Too much pain to hold, too much suffering to embrace, too much agony to live through. He didn't feel he could drink that cup filled to the brim with sorrows.

Why then could he still say yes [to emotional and physical pain]? I can't fully answer that question, except to say that beyond all the abandonment experienced in body and mind, Jesus still had a spiritual bond with the one he called Abba. He possessed a trust beyond betrayal, a surrender beyond despair, a love beyond all fears.1
Dr. Ian S. Markham is right, I think, to suggest that "Christians make suffering central to their faith."2 He states that "nowhere in the Bible is suffering explained," but that "the Christian response to suffering is to recognize God in Christ hanging on the cross"; and that, although we "do not know precisely why suffering is tolerated within creation, we do know that God participates in our suffering."3 In the weekly Eucharist, we are to experience "a meditation on the nature and awfulness of suffering."4



But this meditation includes not only our own personal suffering but also the suffering of humanity: "The point is simple: this world is tragic. Every day a child dies; every day a mother is taken from a family; every day a good person is the victim of some deadly disease or evil act. The liturgical response is to recognize the centrality of suffering in our lives. We recognize the participation of God in that suffering."5 Samuel Wells, Dean of Duke University Chapel, underscores the Christian belief that Jesus is "the centripetal goal to which all searches for truth must look"; He is also "the centrifugal force from which all goodness flows."6 If we are to learn about truth, about life, about love, and even about suffering (His and ours), then we must look to Jesus.

We often say that Jesus suffered so that we would not have to suffer; but what we intend by that confession is to suggest that Jesus suffered vicariously on our behalf salvifically. In other words, Jesus atoned for sin, so that those who by grace trust in His accomplished work (and Person) would not have to suffer an eternity separated from the life, love, and goodness of God. This does not mean, however, that we will avoid all suffering in this world. Again, Henri Nouwen reminds us about universal suffering:
And when I look beyond the boundaries of my own city and country, the picture of sorrow becomes even more frightening. I see parentless children roaming the streets of São Paulo like packs of wolves. I see young boys and girls being sold as prostitutes in Bangkok. I see the emaciated prisoners of war in the camps of former Yugoslavia. I see the naked bodies of people in Ethiopia and Somalia wandering aimlessly in the eroded desert. I see millions of lonely, starving faces all over the world, and large piles of the dead bodies of people killed in cruel wars and ethnic conflicts. Whose cup is this? It is our cup, the cup of human suffering. For each of us our sorrows are deeply personal. For all of us our sorrows, too, are universal.7
Today, as we pray, "Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace," we remember the universal suffering of billions in the world, our own personal suffering to which we may be called -- called in so many various ways -- but also that the One who innocently suffered on our behalf did so freely and willingly out of an eternal love that refuses to be extinguished.

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1 Henri J.M. Nouwen, Can You Drink the Cup? Tenth Anniversary Edition (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 2008), 40-41.

2 Ian S. Markham, Liturgical Life Principles: How Episcopal Worship Can Lead to Healthy and Authentic Living (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2009), 23.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid., 24.

6 Samuel Wells, What Episcopalians Believe: An Introduction (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2011), 1.

7 Nouwen, 38.

ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.