Bucha’s Agony: By His Cross, Christ Has Given a New Meaning to Suffering

“The Church has always held the firm conviction that those who suffer death for the sake of the faith without having received Baptism are baptized by their death for and with Christ. This Baptism of blood, like the desire for Baptism, brings about the fruits of Baptism without being a sacrament.” (CCC 1258)

An aerial view shows body bags in a trench of a mass grave in the grounds surrounding St. Andrew’s church in Bucha on April 7.
An aerial view shows body bags in a trench of a mass grave in the grounds surrounding St. Andrew’s church in Bucha on April 7. (photo: Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP via Getty Images)

God does not demand suffering, but suffering does demand God.

The stories coming out of Ukraine have been devastating. They are no different, perhaps, than thousands of other stories — stories of atrocities in North Korea or the Uighur camps in China, or of the actions of various terrorist groups in the Middle East; no different, at a greater remove, than the horrors of Rwanda in 1994 or Vietnam in the sixties or the two World Wars in the earlier half of the 20th century.

And there one stops, not because history has run out of horrors, but because a century is a convenient stopping place, and the imagination is already crying for mercy.

To say that the present war in Europe is no different from these things is to say: terrible things are done by human beings to each other all the time.

Sometimes, in our comfortable American beds, we don’t think about that often enough. Even during Holy Week, it is possible to look at the cross as a sort of unwanted intrusion: a bit of discomfort that we are required once a year to ritually contemplate — an R-rated film that makes us a bit squeamish for the next 24 hours, 48 if we’re particularly unlucky. This mental habit of half-immersing ourselves in the cross can even lead to some resentment, as if the cross were something detached from our lives, something extraneous that God did to us. The presence of his suffering in our lives can feel like the complaints of a good but tiresome neighbor. Yes, yes, her rheumatism is no doubt very painful, and she deserves better than that; but does she really need to spoil our day by intruding it onto our consciousness yet again?

God help us, but we sometimes say that to him.

Partly, I think, we shrink from contemplating the cross because it reminds us: You too will someday have to pay this price, or you cannot be my disciple. Can you drink of the cup from which I drink?

And partly, it’s because theology tells us that the cross wasn’t necessary. The smallest act of atonement by Our Lord would have been enough to save us — why, then the great to-do? Couldn’t God have accepted a burnt pastry in silent humility, and so saved the world without so much trouble and embarrassment?

And so his drinking of the cup becomes something that we resent, rather than something for which we are grateful. Dear Lord, why set the bar so high?

The answer, of course, is because of Bucha. Because of Bucha, and every other atrocity committed by one human being against another.

We have it backwards when we think that people must suffer to be like Christ. That’s an easy way to look at it from (again) our comfortable American couches, as we sedentary quarterbacks review the distant hurly-burly of human pain. But the reason that Christ suffers and takes the cup is because millions of human beings, some innocent and some less so, have and do and will drink the cup of suffering. They may not know Christ but, like the Holy Innocents who were baptized in blood and the Good Thief who died at his side, they too are in some mysterious way connected to the redemption.

Just as sacramental baptism makes Christians members of Christ’s body, conferring a character upon the soul, so too there is a “baptism of blood” — more shadowy participation in Christ, in which those people baptized in blood and desire participate, even though they be ignorant of Christ.

It was Christ who said, “Amen I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). Ought we to think that his “brethren” are only Christians? Two thousand years of Christian teaching and action teach us otherwise. Or are we to believe that the Redeemer who died “that the world may be saved by him” (John 3:17) is invested in punishing sins against non-Christians, but otherwise doesn’t care what happens to them? Sheer absurdity! Yes, indeed, belief matters — “he that doth not believe, is already judged” (John 3:18) — but the Church has long understood those words to apply to obstinacy. St. Thomas Aquinas, considering the various kinds of baptism, writes that because baptism by water owes its effect to the Holy Ghost:

A man may, without Baptism of Water, receive the sacramental effect from Christ's Passion, in so far as he is conformed to Christ by suffering for Him. Hence it is written (Apocalypse 7:14): “These are they who are come out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes and have made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” In like manner a man receives the effect of Baptism by the power of the Holy Ghost, not only without Baptism of Water, but also without Baptism of Blood: forasmuch as his heart is moved by the Holy Ghost to believe in and love God and to repent of his sins: wherefore this is also called Baptism of Repentance. Of this it is written (Isaiah 4:4): “If the Lord shall wash away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and shall wash away the blood of Jerusalem out of the midst thereof, by the spirit of judgment, and by the spirit of burning.” (Summa Theologica III, q.66, a.11, respondeo)

So if the love of God itself, wherever and however God gives the grace for it, is enough to unite the soul to him, then can we dare to say that the suffering of a soul that loves God, is not, as St. Paul writes of his own sufferings, a “fill[ing] up [of] those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for his body, which is the Church” (Colossians 1:24)?

Then those who suffered at Bucha — and yes, also those of us who have suffered any pain, from toothache to loneliness to sleepless nights to cancer to overdoses to anxiety to depression to mere embarrassments and misunderstandings — whatever the suffering is, however great or small, it was part of that cup that Christ drank for our salvation. And if it was that, if he did indeed die that the world through him might be saved, he sanctified our sufferings when he suffered. Every sneer, every bullet, every cry of pain, every drop of blood, every bone, every torn flesh — in his cross, they were united, and in his Resurrection they will be made whole. For “to them that love God, all things work together unto good” (Romans 8:28).

Ivan Aivazovsky, “Walking on Water,” ca. 1890

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