Feast of the Triumph of the Cross
[Scripture Readings: Num. 21: 4-9; Phil. 2: 6-11; Jn. 3: 13-17]
It is a characteristic of symbols that they admit of a number of interpretations. As the central symbol of our faith, the cross shares in this multiplicity of meanings. We can reflect on it theologically. It can appeal to us devotionally in prayer. Skeptics may see it as a sign of failure, or perhaps heroic resignation in the face of fate. Faith calls us to see it as a sign of God’s love. Whatever attitude we may take, if we reflect on it, the cross will confront us with the reality of suffering and the question: Why is there suffering?
There is a variety of answers to the question. A not uncommon reaction is: I did something wrong. It is true that some actions contain their effects. If I consistently follow an unhealthy diet, I will probably get sick. If I am careless in my behavior, I may well cause harm to myself and to others. But that is only part of suffering. It does not explain the suffering of the victims of Katrina or the victims of a terrorist attack. The more philosophical may explain this suffering as the result of chance and circumstances. The victims happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In my experience that explanation only works, if at all, when it is a question about someone else’s suffering. The result of these explanations and a number of others is at best resignation, perhaps mixed with confusion and resentment.
We can turn to the Bible, but how much more does revelation tell us? Chapter 3 of Genesis adds a moral dimension and tells us that suffering is the result of sin and is part of the human condition. That is a general answer. It doesn’t explain why this particular person suffers in this particular way. A recurring question in the psalms and the wisdom literature is: Why do the innocent suffer and the unjust prosper? When I turn to the Gospels, I am confronted with Jesus’ words “the Messiah must suffer“, but I am left wondering why. Revelation does not answer the question why. However, it tells us is that suffering is neither the result of blind fate nor capricious chance, but that suffering is somehow included within God’s providence and love.
This morning’s readings have proclaimed that Jesus’ death on the cross is the sign of and the means to eternal life and our ultimate happiness. That does not remove the question of suffering. Jesus himself struggled with the suffering of the cross in Gethsemane. Out of that struggle Jesus in his humanity was able to return to God the love he showed us in his divinity by taking on our condition and accepting suffering and death. Jesus gave his life so that we might have life. Revelation does not remove the mystery of suffering; it tells us that God will draw good from suffering. We are not condemned to suffer; we are called to share in Christ’s redemptive suffering. What for many may be a symbol of weakness and defeat, in faith becomes the symbol of our victory over the meaninglessness of suffering and death. We are not left with resignation in the face of suffering, but with hope.