Praised be Jesus Christ!
As we continue our journey through Lent and we take time to reflect on Christ’s passion, especially through the station of the cross, it is also a fitting time of year to consider the meaning and nature of suffering in the life of a Christian. The notion of redemptive suffering, that is, uniting our suffering with the suffering of Christ, is not a topic that we see or hear about much these days, but it nevertheless remains an important part of the Christian vocation. When I was in seminary I wrote my comprehensive exams on the topic of redemptive suffering, below are some excerpts from one of my papers:
Of the New Testament writers, the apostle Paul addresses the topic of redemptive suffering most frequently, leaving us a comprehensive theology of suffering. According to Pope Saint John Paul II, the pinnacle of St. Paul’s theology on suffering can be found in Colossians 1:24: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s suffering for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”
In order to understand what the Apostle Paul means here in Colossians 1:24, we must first come to a more robust understanding of the mind of Saint Paul. Paul sees all things in light of his theology of the Mystical Body of Christ, which he describes in 1 Cor 12:12: “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ.” Paul describes the Church as the “Body of Christ,” saying that if one member suffers, all the members suff er with it; if one member is exulted; all the members share its joy. In other words, we as the individual members of the Body of Christ share with one another in each of our sufferings and at the same time, because we are members of Christ’s Body, our sufferings are intimately united to Christ himself. When we read Colossians 1:24 in light of the theology of the “Body of Christ,” the “lacking” of Christ’s suffering takes on a new meaning; the “lacking” of Christ’s suffering is understood to be in the body of Christ and not in the head—which is Christ himself.
Throughout the New Testament we are reminded that Christians should expect to encounter suffering, and that this suffering will ultimately strengthen their faith and so it should be seen as a reason to rejoice. But in Colossians 1:24, St. Paul goes even further; not only does he rejoice in his sufferings for his own sake, but the true cause for his joy comes from the fact that he is able to suffer for the Church. The reality of the redemptive nature of Paul’s suffering, the understanding that he is able to participate in Christ’s own sufferings in such a way that will sanctify the whole Church is Paul’s final and greatest insight into the mystery of suffering, and it is this insight that causes him such joy. Christ has chosen to allow us, the members of his body, to participate in his Passion and complete Jesus’ sufferings in our own bodies in an ongoing way, just as the Church completes the redemptive work of Christ in an ongoing way. God, in His Divine Wisdom, has given us the opportunity to participate in his own Divine act of redemption even by our suffering: "Though often unconscious collaborators with God’s will, they [human beings] can also enter deliberately into the divine plan by their actions, their prayers, and their sufferings” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #307).
In Christ through Mary,
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