On October 3rd, an American air strike against a hospital run by Doctors without Borders in Kanduz, Afghanistan, killed 10 patients and 12 doctors and nurses. Two more staff members are still unaccounted for. Apart from the controversy over the attack, a potential war crime, and the brutal intrusion into the site two days ago by an American military vehicle, the issue that stands apart from all the rest has to do with suffering and the sometimes heroic if not tragic efforts of people to combat and end it – whether disease, injury, or the great misfortune of being very young or very old in countries racked by drought, famine, and war.
Why do we do it? I believe that organizations such as Doctors without Borders, the Red Cross, and CARE, the Papal Volunteers, among many others, undertake this difficult and seemingly endless quest because their members still possess that uncommon human sense of compassion that characterized the great founders of every religious tradition. And not least of all Jesus himself.
What could be more noble and unselfish than to want a world without suffering? I have known hundreds of young men and women who have devoted their whole lives to ending suffering as doctors and nurses. Jesus himself healed people because he was so deeply moved by their suffering. He saw the end of their suffering as a sign that the Kingdom of God was breaking in to the world. And wherever he went, he healed.
Each of today’s readings points to the fact and meaning of suffering. But they do not seem to see suffering the way we do, as something to be avoided at all cost. And the cost can be astronomically high.
Many of us pray that God to keep us from suffering, stop the killing, the oppression, the hatred, and devastation that creates so much misery and grief in the world. We beg God to feed the hungry and heal the sick and even to fix the weather. We may even ask God to help the Cubs win the world series. We might even like to share in a bit of glory, like James and John in today’s gospel story.
But Jesus tells the disciples they haven’t a clue. He simply asks them: can you suffer with me? Can you drink that cup and go into the waters of pain? “We can,” they say. “And you will,” Jesus promises. The moment passes as Jesus turns the conversation to the motive of ministry. But the real sticking point here is suffering. Why would Jesus ask them if they could suffer? The answer is found in the first and second reading.
First, the prophet Isaiah tells us that in God’s words, “Through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear away.” Through his suffering. Through it. In the Letter to the Hebrews, from wwhich we took the second reading, the author also reminds us that, “we see Jesus… crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons and daughters to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering (Heb 2:9-10).”
Through suffering. Suffering is the key, not only to what we should be praying for, and how, but also to the way we relate to one another, through our ministry. For at the end of the gospel story, Jesus tells the other disciples, now disgusted with the ambition of James and John, “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10: 42-45).
To serve by giving his life as ransom — the word used means the price paid to gain someone’s release. And the word for service here is diakonia, the ordinary word for ministry. Christian ministry and suffering are inescapably connected.
Sometimes Christianity has been rejected by people who think it glorifies suffering and even urges us to seek it. Some Christians have made a whole career out of suffering nobly and often noticeably. But neither Jesus nor God Almighty want people to suffer. Just the opposite. On the other hand, there is no escaping suffering in this world, and the more we try to, the more we fool ourselves. There is no way around suffering. The way is through it.
There is a marvelous bit of wisdom in Ingmar Bergman’s great film, Smiles of a Summer Night, from which Steven Sondheim distilled A Little Night Music. Mrs. Armfeldt, the aged mother of the main character, tells her daughter at a crucial point in the film, “One can never protect a single human being from any kind of suffering. That is what makes one so tremendously weary.”
The divine irony of the cross is that the only way in the end to end suffering is by accepting it, going through it, and defeating it. Not because suffering is a good thing, which it isn’t, but because that’s the price for saving the world. It cost Jesus his life. It cost those doctors and nurses in Afghanistan their lives. It might even cost you yours.
It always costs to try to free people from suffering. Because the price is also suffering. Every true doctor, or nurse, or police officer, or soldier learns that one way or another. Each puts his or her life on the line in order to save people, like the firemen who risked his life to pull a child out of his burning home in Milwaukee last week and occurs regularly in every large city.
What Jesus is telling us, then, what Isaiah and the author of Hebrews are telling us, what God is telling us, is that the more we try to avoid suffering, the farther we get from our goal. As Christians we must confront suffering and strive to end it. But ultimately, it is God alone who will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, [Rev. 21:3-4]. But for now, there is need for mercy, for service, for entering into the suffering of others and by sharing, to lighten it. And that is the true glory, the glory of the cross of Christ. Let us pray that we will be able to drink the cup Jesus offers us, so that we may be fit to share in the glory that awaits.