The Cross: Suffering and Hope

About 3 weeks ago we celebrated the funeral of a young man in our parish. It was an unexpected, tragic death, and the funeral was difficult for the whole parish community. It was a time of suffering. And the Cross was there.

About 7 months ago I entered the hospital room in a NICU, helped a priest baptize and confirm a dying baby while the grieving family huddled around the crib. The baby died less than an hour later. And the Cross was there.

About 2 years ago my favorite professor at A&M, a good man, with 3 small children died of cancer. I cried out in anguish and anger at God for the seeming injustice of it all. And the Cross was there.

About 5 years ago we buried my great-grandmother. On the plains of western Kansas, with cold February wind whipping our faces we gathered as a family to mourn the loss of a matriarch. At the Mass, we placed a crucifix on the casket. Though the loss was long coming, we suffered. And the Cross was there.

About 10 years ago a student at my high school committed suicide. I didn’t know him well but, I knew his family well enough to be impacted by the reality. It was the first time a young person I knew had died. As we tried to understand the incomprehensible, the community mourned. And the Cross was there.

These are just some of the moments when the Cross has been extremely obvious in my life. 

The Cross is there. In a million ways, big and small, every day the Cross marks our life. It comes from our sin, it comes from others sin; it comes from unforeseen sources, it comes from foreseeable consequences. It comes from doing right, and it comes from doing wrong. The suffering we endure, big and small, hurts and is real. Look at the world around us, it cries out with the anguish of billions. The Cross is present each day because it means suffering and human experience is full of suffering.  

By his Incarnation, God entered the human experience of suffering. He thought with a human mind, worked with human hands, loved with a human will, and suffered with a human heart. His ultimate act on the Cross was to enter that archetypal suffering which each human being will eventually experience: death. God died on the Cross.

Let that sink in. God died. Meditate on how strange and terrible it is. Now add this: He could have chosen another way to redeem us and forgive our sins. He did not have to die. Justice and mercy could have been fulfilled if providence had forgiven without requiring satisfaction. Every sin is first and foremost an offense against God, and if, we, weak creatures, can forgive another who has offended us without requiring that the offender make reparation, how much more can he who is perfect do so?

Why, then, would he choose to die? Moreover, why would he choose such a terrible way to die? Ultimately, that man might know how much God loves him, and in so knowing, choose to love God with all his heart, and thus be saved. “God proves his love for us in this, that while we were still yet sinners, he died for us.” (Romans 5:8) God wants communion with his people, so he empties himself and takes upon himself human nature so he can speak our language.

Through this human language, by dying on the Cross the Savior gives us an example of how we also are to suffer. He shows us what humanity is meant to be. He merits for us a participation in the life of the Trinity, and shows us how to live as adopted Sons and Daughters. He, man, dies, and he, God, conquers death. It was by man that sin entered the world and by man was death vanquished.

This Cross, this symbol of suffering, this instrument of torture, this which represents all the evil present in our lives because of sin and its effects, is transformed into a symbol of hope so great that it is found in even the worst of circumstances. Its form is found at every funeral and hospital room, every deathbed and difficulty, every hardship and pain, in the very lives of every person who has ever walked this earth. The Cross does not mean an end to our sufferings; the Cross means there is hope in every suffering.

God permitted the greatest evil possible, the death of his beloved Son, and through it accomplished his greatest work: the raising of man from sin to a sharing in the very life of God. The Cross shows us the ultimate example of the fact that God makes all things work for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose. Our suffering, great and small means something great, for by it we are conformed to Christ Crucified, and if we die a death like his we are assured also that we will rise with him.

This Holy Week, I invite you to embrace the mystery of the Cross which transforms suffering into hope through sacrifice. In the words of Gregory of Nazianzus, "Let us sacrifice ourselves to God; or rather let us go on sacrificing throughout every day and at every moment. Let us accept anything for the Word’s sake. By sufferings let us imitate His Passion: by our blood let us reverence His Blood: let us gladly mount upon the Cross. Sweet are the nails, though they be very painful. For to suffer with Christ and for Christ is better than a life of ease with others."