For those watching news reports this week, we have been greeted again by the heart-breaking spectacle of many thousands of poor people trying to make their way across thousands of difficult miles though Central America and Mexico to reach haven in the United States, the hoped-for Promised Land. After immense suffering, having been uprooted from their homeland because of oppression, violence, and poverty, and risking their lives in so many ways, they are met at the border by armed guards, hostile militias, and now soldiers. There, children are torn from their parents’ arms, families are ripped apart, and those few who manage to cross the border are consigned for months in concentration camp facilities.
It is a pattern found elsewhere, of course: in the Mediterranean where Africans risk everything, not least their lives, to find a land of hope and promise in the wealthy northern hemisphere. It us found in Asia, and most recently but hardly only (if especially) in Myanmar, where the Rohingya people have been oppressed, killed, burnt out of their villages, violated and driven from their homeland, only to find bleak refuge in Bangladesh… if they are lucky. In Iraq, it was the Yazidis. Before that, it was the people of South Sudan and East Timor. The list is very long.
We can continue to pluck people from the river, but as my teacher and friend Gerry Egan used to say, “There comes a time when we need to travel up the river and find out who’s pushing them in and make them stop.” But even then, we can never fully succeed.
In this life, there is no final escape from suffering and the thought that we could somehow eliminate suffering from the human condition is an illusion. In Ingmar Bergman’s great film Smiles of a Summer Night (later made into the wonderful if less thought-provoking musical “A Little Night Music”), the elderly doyenne Mrs. Armfeldt tells her daughter, “One can never protect a single human being from any kind of suffering. That is what makes one so tremendously weary.”
Once again in today’s readings, we are reminded that to follow Christ involves a willingness if not even a commitment to endure suffering. But
these readings do not see suffering the way we do, as something to be avoided at all cost or simply wished away. 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. But Jesus reminded his closest disciples, so obsessed with privilege and position, that they really hadn’t a clue about what it all meant.
The message is the same, so forgive me for repeating myself. Jesus simply asks them: can you suffer with me? “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. And then in the Letter to the Hebrews, the ancient Christian author 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 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.
The divine irony of the cross is that the only way to end suffering is by accepting 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. And it might even cost you yours.
It always costs to free people from suffering. And the price is also suffering. Every true doctor, or nurse, fire-fighter, police officer, or soldier learns that one way or another. Each puts his or her life on the line in order to save people.
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 hopefully end 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.