Wednesday in Holy Week

Lord God, whose blessed Son our Savior gave His body to be whipped and His face to be spit upon: Give us grace to accept joyfully the sufferings of the present time, confident of the glory that shall be revealed; 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, Wednesday in Holy Week, 220)
That Holy Week includes a primary focus on suffering should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the sufferings of Christ on earth leading up to His crucifixion and subsequent burial: "Because Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, to bring you to God, by being put to death in the flesh . . ." (1 Pet. 3:18 NET). Suffering, according to authors of Christian scripture, is a natural part and parcel to faith and life-experience in Christ (cf. Matt. 10:22; Acts 5:41; 9:16; Phil. 1:29; 1 Pet. 3:13-17).

As noted on Monday, Dr. Ian S. Markham is right, I think, to suggest that "Christians make suffering central to their faith."1 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."2 In the weekly Eucharist, we are to experience "a meditation on the nature and awfulness of suffering"3 -- Christ's suffering, our personal suffering, and universal suffering.

But not all suffering is redemptive. A woman, for example, should never have to "suffer" the abuse of a man (or a woman or her children or pastor or church leaders). Abuse, whether physical or emotional or psychological, is not the type of suffering to which believers are called. When we "suffer," we suffer ridicule or persecution for being Christian, for following Jesus (Matt. 5:10, 11, 12). We are not called to endure and suffer abuse by bullies, the power-hungry, or from terrorists (national or personal). The God of justice expects us to govern and to be governed by just laws, protecting minorities and the innocent and marginalized and weak, even self-sacrificially so. But we are not to endure or tolerate or pacify or ignore abuse in other forms.


Episcopalians take very seriously the words that are spoken and prayed, either from Scripture or from the Book of Common Prayer, because, as the Rt. Rev. Andrew Doyle explains, "words have meaning and substance." He continues:
What we say is very real. But that language is more than a social construct. As people of the Word of God, we believe our language and our actions are rooted in the language and activity of God. We believe that what was spoken before all that is seen and unseen is the ground of our proclamation today. When we stand up and make our promises [to love and follow Christ] before God with the congregation and community as our witness, we create a verbal vessel of grace that makes its way through creation and draws us ever closer to the divine being and to one another.4
Week after week, and for many of us day after day, we repeat words again and again from Scripture and from the Prayer Book that offer us opportunities "to remake, rethink, remind, and begin again to remold [our own lives]. [We] constantly have before [us] these questions: How [are we] doing as a Christian and as an Episcopalian? How [are we] doing in [our lives] and [in following Christ] day after day after day?"5 Because following Jesus is quite counter-cultural -- quite unnatural to our particular inclinations; He demands that we be humble (Matt. 5:5), merciful (Matt. 5:7), pure (Matt. 5:8), makers of peace (Matt. 5:9), endure persecution for being a Christian (Matt. 5:10, 11, 12) without retaliating, and without demanding our personal so-called rights (Matt. 5:38-42). Moreover, He calls us to love our perceived enemies (Matt. 5:43-48).

In essence, Christ calls us to a life of sacrifice, as well as to a loving willingness to suffer (for Him and for others). Many of us in the West will, most likely, never suffer genuine persecution for following Christ (and no, my conservative evangelical friends, being challenged by a culture that rejects your politico-religio fundamentalism is not tantamount to suffering persecution). Jesus drank His cup of life, the cup of sorrow -- sorrow for sin and evil and brokenness -- and He drank it to the dregs. Henri Nouwen, in closing, suggests that holding our own cup of life, lifting it for others to see, and drinking it, too, down to the dregs is "the full celebration of being human."6 For now that humanity includes the reality of suffering, in the name of Jesus, and for His sake.

__________

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

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Andrew Doyle, Unabashedly Episcopalian: Proclaiming the Good News of the Episcopal Church (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2012), 12.

5 Ibid., 19.

6 Henri J.M. Nouwen, Can You Drink the Cup? Tenth Anniversary Edition (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 2008), 24.