Susanna Spencer has a masters in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer and the theological editor for Blessed is She, and writes on her own blog Living With Lady Philosophy. She is a homeschooling mother of four and lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Have you ever noticed how often joy is paired with suffering in the Scriptures? Abraham and Sarah long for a child into their old age before they are given the joy of a son. The Israelites only experience the joy of being freed from slavery, after having suffered for many years at the hands of the Egyptians. Job loses all his worldly goods, his children, his health, only to have it all restored back to him. Further, in the letters of St. Paul, we hear again and again the urge to rejoice in our sufferings: “Even if I am to be poured as a libation upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.” (Philippians 2:17-18)
We should not be surprised, then, that when God became man, the Christmas joy of the shepherds comes after years of waiting for a Savior while suffering at the hands of oppressive governments. Or that the very reason for our joy at God become man can only be realized after this God made Man suffers and dies for us on the Cross.
The most theologically honest Christmas carols are the ones that talk about the reason for Jesus’ birth: the ones that hint at his coming death, the ones that speak of thorns and blood. Simeon gives us the same hint of it when he tells the Blessed Mother that her heart shall be pierced (Luke 2:35). Yet, we are also given reason to rejoice. The joy of our God coming to save us gives us the hope to face the Lenten seasons of our lives.
Over the years I have sought to overcome my melancholic temperament through becoming a student of joy. I seek it everywhere, and I find that it often eludes me. But I can also pinpoint times in my life where joy was second nature.
More recently I have found a deeper, fuller, immovable joy during a long period of suffering. I had been seeking this joy in prayer with fervor, and the more I prayed for joy the more I was drawn to the Cross. I would sit in prayer with the Blessed Mother in her pietà, reflecting on her holding her dead Son, and realize that this suffering was necessary for joy. Because we live in this fallen world, we have to suffer through the loss of ourselves for the sake of having joy.
I have learned to see the suffering that God allows us to bear as a gift if only we would see it that way.
As St. Paul says:
Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:8-11)
The deep joy that comes with embracing this suffering is hard to explain, and I know I am far from experiencing it as the saints did. There is a great mystery in the joy one has when one surrenders to God one’s sufferings and trusts in his great mercy.
We can look for an explanation in the Gospel readings of the Christmas season, especially when we hear about the Blessed Mother pondering things in her heart. She ponders the story of the shepherds, who come to worship her son after the announcement of the angels that a Savior has been born. She thinks about the words of Simeon. And later when her son is 12 years old, she ponders his words that he must be about his Father’s work. (Luke 2:49-51).
I find it a great comfort to ponder the willing gift of the Blessed Mother from the moment of her Fiat to the Angel Gabriel through her Assumption into Heaven. Even she, our sinless Mother, bore the cross of suffering. When she embraced the call to be the mother of Our Lord, she embraced all the suffering that came with it. Because of her example, I can seek her help to embrace the suffering I have been given of late (in the form of multiple long-term health ailments), and it is through my devotion to her that I have found the peaceful joy of knowing that the God who came to save us came to save me as well.
Her motherly care reminds me that my suffering has a meaning, my suffering will not be forever, and that I do not even need to be anxious in my suffering because I am not suffering alone since I am suffering with her and her Son. The only time I do not bear my suffering well is when I neglect to trust in her motherly care. Some days I can even embrace the words of Saint Paul: “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the Church.” (Colossians 1:24)
Christmas can seem especially hard for those of us undergoing suffering, whether through illness, family estrangement, the death of loved ones, the pain of infertility, and so on. Perhaps we can remember this year that Christmas joy is for those who suffering, for those who wait in hope, hoping against all hope. When I gaze upon my Infant King this Christmas, I hope to keep the Cross in the forefront of my mind and offer Him the gift of my own cross. For it is only in the Cross that we have our joy. Rejoice!