Let us begin by considering a few questions. What is the one thing that is part of the life of every human being? What is the one thing common to all human experience? Did you answer “suffering”? We all suffer. Suffering can have many causes, physical, emotional, or because of relationships, but all people for all time and in all places have suffered. Next, what do you think is common with the way that all people deal with suffering? I think that all people share this common thread in the way they deal with suffering: they want it to go away. This is only natural. All people, regardless of when or where they lived have had to suffer. All people have also looked for ways to remove this suffering from their life.
This holds true for the Jewish people at the time of Jesus because they were suffering as a nation and were looking for a way out. At this time, the people of Israel were undergoing a communal suffering for which they desperately sought relief. For a moment, put yourself in the shoes of the Jewish people at the time of Christ. Throughout history God has promised you, as a people, a land. But throughout history you have been occupied time and time again: the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Greeks. Now the most recent occupiers are the Romans. This is a great cause of sufferings and you want it to go away. You are seeking liberation from this suffering. In particular, many are expecting God to send a political liberator: the Messiah. This Messiah, or anointed one, is expected to expel the Romans from your land, through force if necessary, and re-establish the Kingdom of Israel. Jesus simply did not fit the bill of this kind of political liberator. In the gospel we see this. Jesus asks who people think that He is. A prophet? Sure. The Messiah? Only Peter recognizes Jesus as this. The people were expecting the Messiah to liberate them, to free them from the suffering caused by oppression from the Romans. But Jesus did not fit this bill. The Jews at the time of Jesus were suffering and looking for relief.
We are very much the same: we look for a Messiah who can take away our suffering. Today we think the same way as the Jews at the time of Jesus: we each have our different struggles and suffering and we seek for someone who can take it all away. We can see this fact just by the type of movies that are popular. Recently another Superman movie has been released. This movie is in fact just another in a long line of super-hero movies which all seem to have the same premise. First we find people who are suffering. Maybe it is a kind of personal suffering, like an illness or individual tragedy, or a communal suffering, like an entire city is under siege by a criminal. These people desperately want their suffering removed. Enter the superhero. This hero, whether it be Superman, Spider-man or Batman, always comes to remove suffering. The superhero is the kind of Messiah that the Jews at the time of Christ were expecting. The fact that these movies are so popular proves that we have this desire: in our suffering we desperately seek someone to remove the cause of suffering from our life.
Jesus, however, did not come to remove our suffering but to give it value. Christ came not so that we wouldn't have to suffer anymore, but rather He transformed suffering so that it now has great meaning and purpose in our life. In today’s gospel Jesus makes it clear that both He and His followers should expect to suffer: if we want to follow Him we must take up our cross and follow Him. Jesus does not come to take away our suffering. Jesus does forever change suffering by giving it value and meaning. By His own suffering and death Jesus saved the world. With Jesus, suffering now has redemptive value. Our suffering too can have value; it can help bring ourselves and others closer to God. Suffering does this in two ways. First, when we or someone we love suffers it often leads us to call on God for help because we realize that there is something outside our control. We realize that we need God. Because of this, times of suffering can be moments of conversion. Secondly, suffering has value because when we unite our sufferings with Jesus we can help bring other people closer to God, even those we do not know. Like it was for Jesus, our suffering can be redemptive. When we accept our suffering and out of love “offer it up” for others, we, like Jesus can help bring people closer to God through our suffering. Jesus did not come to take away suffering but to give it value and meaning.
We all need to learn to suffer well. In our life it takes time to accept and deal with our suffering as Jesus intended. Suffering is not of itself good. As we know suffering can have an incredibly crushing effect on people’s lives. We should not go seeking out suffering, but when suffering enters our life we need to learn how to suffer as Christ intended, so that our suffering can be redemptive, so that it can bring ourselves and others closer to God. I think that there are two ways we can do this. First, we need to ask Jesus to be close to us during our times of suffering. We have to ask for His help to accept our suffering and to cope with it. Archbishop Fulton Sheen had a wonderful expression to describe this. He said, “we need to make our cross a crucifix”. We cannot suffer alone. We need ask Jesus to be with us. Second, I think it can be very helpful to offer our suffering for someone in particular. When we suffer we can accept it and ask that God uses this suffering to help or to bless someone in particular. For example we can pray that God uses our suffering to help a family member who is far from the Church or someone we know is passing through a difficult time. We can also offer our suffering for people we do not know. I have heard of people who offer their sufferings for poor children or for priests who are passing through difficult times. By inviting Jesus into our suffering and by offering our suffering for someone in particular, we can learn over time how to suffer well.
Suffering is a universal part of the human experience. We cannot avoid it. Jesus did not come to take away our suffering. He came to give our suffering value and meaning. Through our suffering He wants us to participate in the redemption of mankind. Today, let us try to look at our life and identify a particular suffering that we are having difficulty accepting. Let us invite Jesus into this suffering and offer it for someone or some group in particular. In this way we can make our cross a crucifix.