A Meditation on Suffering
“Father, if thou art willing, let this cup pass from me…”
It is night, and the meal has ended. Jesus lies prostrate on the ground in the Garden of Gethsemane. He fervently prays, “Father, if thou art willing, let this cup pass from me; yet not my will, but thine, be done.” It is one of the most compelling moments in all of scripture. Jesus, deep in agony, consents to enter the suffering that will ultimately lead to his death. Theologians may differ on just what details Jesus knew of his impending suffering, but what they do agree upon is that Jesus knew he had challenged the religious and political authorities to the degree that his life was in serious peril.
During Lent we are invited to journey with Jesus to the cross. We take this journey by focusing on what Jesus said and did and on what occurred in his last days on earth. What are we to learn from him? What do his actions teach us about the subject of suffering? How can following Jesus enable us to experience resurrection?
Let us begin by revisiting the scene. Jesus is turned over to the authorities and condemned to death. He is stripped of everything—his clothing, his ministry, his dignity, and ultimately his life. His followers abandon him at the very moment he most needs their faithfulness. The picture is bleak…it seems that all hope died with Jesus on the cross that Good Friday afternoon.
If we imagine entering the story at this point, we might envision ourselves like the two men on the road to Emmaus. As we walk along the road we talk about the events of the past few days. We are confused. We followed Jesus. We had expected him to rescue us from religious and political injustice. We had trusted him! Yet, the one we thought could overcome it all had become vulnerable, been broken and died the death of a lowly criminal on the cross. Our understanding of the world and of our faith is shattered. Our bodies and our spirits are racked with fear, with hopelessness and with despair.
Yet, this was not the end of the story. What happened between Good Friday and Easter Sunday is a mystery. It goes beyond everything that we’re capable of comprehending with our rational minds. We cannot explain it. Yet, God acted, and what seemed to be the end turned out to be a new beginning. Scripture tells us that it was in the very center of Jesus’ brokenness and vulnerability that God was able to bring about resurrection, new life and a new beginning. This is the essence of mystery.
Lent also provides us an opportunity to reflect upon our own lives. It is a time to ask ourselves, “What is being stripped away in my life?” “How am I broken and vulnerable?” “Where am I experiencing a death?” Perhaps it is in financial security, in health, in a relationship or in a broken dream for the future?”
We can also ask, “What needs to be stripped away to have a life that is more Christ centered, more meaningful and rich with purpose?” “What attitudes, beliefs or behaviors do I exhibit which are harmful to myself or to others?” “Do I expect compassion and understanding from those around me while showing little of these same qualities to others?” “Do I over consume or misuse the natural resources that have been graciously bestowed upon me by our Creator?” “Do I drink too much, eat too much, spend too much time at work or in front of the computer?” “Is it time for me to let go of an image or belief about God that is no longer life giving for me?” “What do I need to be willing to have stripped away to allow God to bring forth resurrection and a new beginning for me?”
When we ask such questions we find ourselves, like Jesus, praying, “Father, let this cup pass from me.” Suffering is not an experience we openly embrace. We may attempt to overlook the pain by telling ourselves that we’re being melodramatic, we may stay extra busy to distract ourselves from our sorrows or we may try to ignore our suffering altogether. These are natural means of coping, and often we need to do this for a period of time. However, there frequently comes a point where our diversionary tactics no longer help, and we find ourselves lonely and in pain. It’s at this point that Jesus becomes an inspiration for us. His prayer did not end with, “… let this cup pass from me.” It continued, “…yet not my will, but thine, be done.”
Unredeemed pain is that suffering that lives on inside each of us, sometimes for years, without having been touched by the healing hand of God. What scripture, psychology, spiritually and experience have taught me is that the only way to have pain redeemed is to journey into and through it. In so doing, what appears to be an ending becomes a new beginning…not as it was before…but something we could never have thought possible in the bleakness of our endings.
Join me back along the road to Emmaus. As we walk a “stranger” comes alongside to accompany us. He asks, “What are you talking about to each other, as you walk along?” He seems unaware of events that have taken place in the last couple of days. Now, let us change the story a bit…bring the “stranger” into your life as it is today. Imagine that you tell him your story…about places of your vulnerability, your brokenness and your pain. You are astounded by this man’s ability to hear into the depths of your being. He seems to know you even better than you know yourself. When you have told him everything, the “stranger” begins to tell you about his life. He refers to the scriptures, starting all the way back to Moses and the prophets. As he talks the story grows more and more familiar. But you have reached your neighborhood and the man appears to continue on walking. You could say good-bye, but something deep inside stirs you to ask, “Stay with me; it’s getting late and the sun is going down.”
What made you invite the stranger to stay with you? Is it that he listened to you and he really heard your sorrow? Is it that his story continues to resonate in your soul? You grow increasingly aware that he has something to teach you, and you wonder what you will learn from him at dinner. As you sit to eat the man takes the bread and says a blessing; then he breaks it and reaches over to give it to you. There is something familiar about his hands…they have calluses and the skin is cracked…you wonder fleetingly about a wound in the center of his hands…but you are distracted by is something else…something about the way he gently places the bread, as an offering, into your hands. He looks deeply into your eyes…almost as though he can see into your soul. Suddenly your eyes are opened and you see that this man is Jesus. You want to know everything…why did he have to die? What happened between Good Friday and today? How is it that he has come to life again? What does this mean for the future of his followers? And what does it mean for you and your suffering? You have so many questions…so very many questions.
Just as you open your mouth to inquire Jesus disappears from your sight. You are stunned…you have been in the presence of the resurrected Christ. Jesus has touched you in your place of deep vulnerability and brokenness, and something in you has changed. There are no words to explain it, but you are a new person. That which you most feared as you entered into your suffering…that your life would end…has not occurred. Rather, you have experienced resurrection; a new beginning and a new life. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Amen