Commentary by Donagh O’Shea OP, www.goodnews.ie
Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.
We would rather be ruined than changed,
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.
The word ‘suffer’ comes from two Latin words, ‘sub’ (under) and ‘ferre’ (to bear). There’s a sense of supporting something from below. It is an active vigorous word. It lets you imagine some human being who has taken up his or her burden of pain and is bravely carrying it along.
There are related words that seem to look at the matter from a different side – from the outside. The Latin origins of these words tell the story: ‘depression’ (‘to press down’), ‘grief’ (also ‘to make heavy’), ‘affliction’ (‘to knock around’). If I may put it this way: these words seem to look at human life not from the point of view of the sufferer but from the point of view of the burdens that bear down on us. They suggest incapacity and weakness.
If it were only about words, how easy it would be! But it is about us. We have two ways of living with suffering: we can take it on our shoulders and try to walk with it; or we can just sit down under it and feel like victims. No one pretends that either way is easy. If it were easy it wouldn’t be suffering.
Our instinct is to run away from suffering, and when we can’t escape from it, to treat it as an enemy that has defeated us; then we are full of complaints and self-pity. This is the harder way in the end: harder for ourselves and for everyone around us. The wisdom of the Gospel tells us to face our suffering, not to treat it like an enemy but like a friend, to learn from it, to let it draw us away from self-centred thoughts and feelings, and ultimately to see it as a sharing in the Passion of Christ.
There’s a striking phrase in John’s gospel, “You will have sorrow, but your sorrow will turn into joy” (16:20). He did not say “Your sorrow will be replaced by joy.” Your joy will somehow be born out of the heart of your sorrow. Then it will be able to endure; it will not see sorrow as a threat and an enemy. It will not be at the mercy of sorrowful circumstances. Sorrow itself will give birth to a strange deep kind of joy. A great meditation teacher was weeping at the death of her daughter. Someone expressed surprise that such a person would weep. “Yes, I weep,” she said, “but every tear is a jewel.” Her suffering was real suffering, yet it did not lead her into desolation, but into greater depth.
“The word of the Lord has meant for me insult, derision, all day long,” said Jeremiah (today’s first reading). For Jesus it meant crucifixion. But neither of them turned back, neither of them was silenced. Jeremiah said, “There seemed to be a fire burning in my heart.” Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth” (Luke 12:49). It was that inner urgency that drove them forward in the teeth of great suffering. It was inner but it was also a call from beyond. We are inclined to see these as opposites. How could it be both? In experience that is just how it is. There is a clear expression of it in the Confessions of St Patrick (another man who suffered greatly for the word of God). “I saw God praying within me, and I was as it were, inside my own body, and I heard Him above me – that is, above my inner self.”
Jesus did not turn back from death; he went through the heart of it, and it was transformed into resurrection. “Your Son the royal path of suffering trod,” says the hymn. Our faith does not hold us back from life or life’s sorrows, but it enables them to be