“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3: 16-17). In Salvifici Doloris, John Paul II tells us that these words from the Gospel of John, spoken by Christ to Nicodemus, introduce us to the very heart of God’s work of salvation. “Salvation means liberation from evil, and for this reason it is closely bound up with the problem of suffering.”28 God desires our liberation from evil -- from suffering -- but evil in its greatest sense does not only refer to the suffering human persons endure in this world alone. God desires our eternal liberation from evil. In other words, there is a worse suffering from which he desires to liberate us: from eternal suffering, which is the loss of eternal life. Therefore, the words “should not perish” are followed with the words “but have eternal life.”
This truth radically changes the picture of man’s history and his earthly situation: in spite of the sin that took root in this history both as an original inheritance and as the “sin of the world” and as the sum of personal sins, God the Father has loved the only-begotten Son, that is, he loves him in a lasting way; and then in time, precisely through this all-surpassing love, he “gives” this Son, that he may strike at the very roots of human evil and thus draw close in a salvific way to the whole world of suffering which man shares.29
One may wonder: Is this the way it had to be? Was it necessary that Jesus suffer so cruelly? Was there no other way? Throughout the New Testament writings, Jesus’ death on the Cross is held as necessary for salvation. This was also a notion foretold in Old Testament texts. And John Paul II states:
Precisely by means of this suffering he must bring it about “that man should not perish, but have eternal life.” Precisely by means of his cross he must strike at the roots of evil, planted in the history of man and in human souls. Precisely by means of his cross he must accomplish the work of salvation. This work, in the plan of eternal Love, has a redemptive character.30
Therefore, Jesus is God’s gift of love to all who suffer. We should not lose sight of the magnitude of such a love.
Suffering is, in itself, an experience of evil. But Christ has made suffering the firmest basis of the definitive good, namely the good of eternal salvation. By his suffering on the cross, Christ reached the very roots of evil, of sin and death.31
In the passion of Christ, human suffering reaches its culmination, and suffering enters a “new dimension and a new order: it has been linked to love, to that love of which Christ spoke to Nicodemus, to that love which creates good, drawing it out by means of suffering, just as the supreme good of the Redemption of the world was drawn from the cross of Christ, and from that cross constantly takes its beginning. The cross of Christ has become a source from which flow rivers of living water.”32
In Salvifici Doloris, John Paul II tells us:
In the cross of Christ not only is the Redemption accomplished through suffering, but also human suffering itself has been redeemed. Christ -- without any fault of his own -- took on himself “the total evil of sin.” The experience of this evil determined the incomparable extent of Christ’s suffering, which became the price of the Redemption.33
In the First Letter of Peter we hear about the price of Redemption: “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1: 18-19).
St. Paul also speaks of the price of Redemption. In his letter to the Galatians he writes: “Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father; to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen” (Galatians 1: 3-5). To the Corinthians he says, “You were bought with a price. So glorify God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:20).
What does it mean to “glorify” God with one’s body? One way of approaching this is to speak of “sacrifice.” By definition, a sacrifice involves offering something tangible to God with the proper internal submission to him, in acknowledgment of his dominion over us and our subjection and obedience to him. According to St. Augustine, “Every action done so as to cling to God in communion of holiness, and thus achieve blessedness, is a true sacrifice.”
We are all subject to evil and suffering, therefore, we can all turn our suffering into a “sacrifice” (something holy) by uniting it with the suffering of Jesus Christ. This is what St. Paul means in his letter to the Romans when he writes, “I appeal to you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12: 1-2).
John Paul II explains it this way:
The Redeemer suffered in place of man and for man. Every man has his own share in the Redemption. Each one is also called to share in that suffering through which the Redemption was accomplished. He is called to share in that suffering through which all human suffering has also been redeemed. In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of Redemption. Thus each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ.34
St. Paul writes to the early Christians about “sharing” in the work of Redemption through their own suffering. The early Christians, whose sufferings were often intense and atrocious, found that St. Paul’s teachings on this subject greatly enabled them to face and endure such malicious persecutions. Yet, there was something more in his message, something that he himself would later admit helped him to persevere through the humiliations, doubts, hopelessness, and persecutions. Thus, he also writes in the second letter to the Corinthians: “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (2 Corinthians 1:5).
The comfort St. Paul is referring to in the above passage is precisely what John Paul II speaks about in Salvifici Doloris: “Those who share in the sufferings of Christ are also called, through their own sufferings, to share in glory.”35 Through the centuries, Christians have continued to suffer persecutions for Christ’s sake. They have relied heavily on the testimony of those who were eye witnesses to both the crucifixion and the resurrection, a powerful reminder that sharing in the cross of Christ also brings with it a sharing in his resurrection and glory.
It is also important to note that John Paul II speaks of sharing in Christ’s suffering as a “calling,” as a “vocation.” He states:
Christ does not explain in the abstract the reasons for suffering, but before all else he says: Follow me! Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering! Through my cross! Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting himself to the cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed before him.36
John Paul II sums up this idea of suffering as a “calling” when he comments on the words of St. Paul: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1:24).
In this Body, Christ wishes to be united with every individual, and in a special way he is united with those who suffer. The words quoted above from the letter to the Colossians bear witness to the exceptional nature of this union. For, whoever suffers in union with Christ -- just as the Apostle Paul bears his “tribulations” in union with Christ -- not only receives from Christ that strength already referred to but also “completes” by his suffering “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.”
This evangelical outlook especially highlights the truth concerning the creative character of suffering. The sufferings of Christ created the good of the world’s Redemption. This good in itself is inexhaustible and infinite. No man can add anything to it. But at the same time, in the mystery of the Church as his Body, Christ has in a sense opened his own redemptive suffering to all human suffering.
Insofar as man becomes a sharer in Christ’s sufferings -- in any part of the world and at any time in history -- to that extent he in his own way completes the suffering through which Christ accomplished the Redemption of the world.37
Additionally, John Paul II explains that by participating in the sufferings of Jesus Christ and, thus, in his work of Redemption, each “sharer in suffering” is performing a spiritual service. Together with Christ, he or she is working for the salvation of his or her brothers and sisters. John Paul II calls this “an irreplaceable service.” He goes on to say that “those who share in the sufferings of Christ preserve in their own sufferings a very special particle of the infinite treasure of the world’s Redemption, and can share this treasure with others.”38
It is only fitting, of course, that Mary, who was given the title Theotokos (Mother of God) in the third century at the Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431) be part of our consideration of “shared” suffering. In Salvifici Doloris, John Paul II explains that “it is especially consoling to note -- and also accurate in accordance with the Gospel and history -- that at the side of Christ, in the first and most exalted place, there is always his Mother through the exemplary testimony that she bears by her whole life.”39 She was a witness to her Son’s passion by her presence. She shared in Jesus’ passion by her compassion. Not only did Mary herself share in the suffering of this world in her own life but also, in bringing forth the Savior of the World, she participated in the Redemption of us all.
In Lessons From the School of Suffering, Fr. Jim Willig shares how Mary helped him through some of his greatest trials and torments.
Each evening at this stage of treatment, members of my family gathered around my bed at my parents’ home and prayed the Rosary through those terribly difficult times. The Rosary soon became a comfort to me, reminding me that the Blessed Mother, Mary, was with me. Just as she stood beside her Son when he was on his cross, she stood beside me, helping me carry the cross of cancer.
While my heavenly mother stood beside me, so, too, did my earthly mother. Every night while recuperating at my parents’ home, my mother and I shared a simple ritual: Mom would sit at the foot of my bed and massage my feet. This gentle and loving gesture always reminded me that Mother Mary was at the foot of the cross of Jesus when he turned to his beloved disciple, John, and said, “Woman, here is your son” (John 19:26), thereby giving his mother to John and at the same time, giving her to all of us. From that day on, John took Mary into his home. This image from Scripture gives me great comfort. It is there for us all. All we need to do is invite Mary into our hearts and homes to help us, especially in our times of suffering.40
Understanding and Accepting The "Redemptive" Value of Suffering
Based on John Paul II's Salvifici Doloris
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