I want to concentrate today on one line from the second reading: “I rejoice now in the sufferings I bear for your sake; and what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ I fill up in my flesh for his body, which is the Church…” (Colossians 1:24) That St Paul suffered a great deal is attested to frequently in his letters. He was beaten, imprisoned many times, shipwrecked, and rejected by his own people, and finally he was put to death. But here he is telling us he rejoices in his sufferings because somehow they are joined to the sufferings of Christ, and somehow making up for what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. How do you understand this?
Christ saved us through an act of suffering, dying for us on the cross, bearing in his own person the weight of our sin. On the cross, in other words, suffering and love coincide. Every real act of love does involve suffering since love is bearing the burden of another. Now we know in Paul’s vision the Church is not just a gathering of like-minded people. Rather it is a body made up of interdependent cells, molecules and organs. We don’t just follow Christ, and admire him from a distance. Through our baptism we participate in his death and therefore the Christian should not be surprised that we would be called upon to suffer precisely in the works of love.
Sometimes it’s easy to see what it looks like. A mother stays up all night depriving herself of sleep in order to care for a sick child. She suffers so that some of the pain of her little one might be alleviated. Or someone willingly bears an insult refusing to return injury for injury. What he is doing is suffering for the sake of love. Forgiveness when you are hurt is an act of suffering love. Even a more dramatic example is St Maximilian Kolbe offering his life for love of another prisoner, in the hell of Auschwitz.
But there are times when the relationship between suffering and love is not so clear. There are mysterious moments in the economy of grace when God uses our suffering to benefit another member of the body of Christ. Again, using the analogy of the body, if there is no life in one member, say the left hand, the other hand will have to work much harder to feed and take care of the body. In the mystical body some members pray and suffer for others so that Christ’s life can flow from them into the lifeless member. In doing this with love you are associated with Christ in his redeeming work, and you will also resemble him in the next life in the inconceivable happiness of heaven.
Fr Anthony Mary