When You Suffer with Christ, Look Up, for Your Redemption Is At Hand
The moral lesson of the end times Gospels teaches us the value of mundane sufferings.
The Gospels during Advent gives Catholics the familiar picture of Jesus warning his disciples of the end times and, ultimately, the Last Judgment. The Church has traditionally reminded its members that we are not to anticipate these general end times personally — we may live to witness the last day, though more likely not. Rather, individually, we ought to take the moral sense of Jesus’ words to heart — namely, that we will each experience our own version of the Lord’s Advent, in the form of death. Thus the lesson from many a pulpit in the season of Advent.
This is all right and just, but I wonder if it leaves out another moral sense implicit in Jesus’ description of the terrors of the end times:
And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, by reason of the confusion of the roaring of the sea and of the waves; men withering away for fear, and expectation of what shall come upon the whole world. For the powers of heaven shall be moved; and then they shall see the Son of man coming in a cloud, with great power and majesty. But when these things begin to come to pass, look up, and lift up your heads, because your redemption is at hand (Luke 21).
If the coming of Jesus and the Judgment has its personal application, surely these troubles in the heavens do too. We may not all experience the martyrs’ persecution and betrayals, but some wounds necessarily belong to the Christian life.
It is easy to see this mandatory suffering, promised by Jesus to James and John in the form of a “chalice” and described by St. Paul as a filling out in one’s own body what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ (Colossians 1:24), as rather a slog. Carrying our cross — it’s this thing you’ve got to do, like punching the clock in your factory or office or retail store, and at the end of the day you get your wages. Indeed, Jesus himself used day laborers and their wages as an example of the Christian life. That, however, was with the object of stressing the radical unquestionableness of the Christian reward — the seeming inequality involved in God’s bestowing heaven on deathbed converts and lifelong saints alike. One would not wish to draw from the parable the lesson that, because God resembles the owner of the vineyard in this respect, he is therefore in the same position as a practitioner of wage slavery.
Yet that is precisely the image that many have of God. Punch the clock here, even once, and take home your eternal reward. Put up with this spinach and solar eclipse now, and eat your cake amid the stars later. One may be forgiven, at this level of catechesis, for thinking God a trifle arbitrary.
And it is true that, on the most obvious level, Our Lord offering such catechesis: “Don’t worry; when the going gets tough, I’ll be nearly there. Dark the hour before the eternal dawn!”; etc. And in individual lives, the message may be somewhat similar: any sort of suffering we may encounter can be regarded as no big deal, given the short duration of human life, and the surety of seeing Christ at the end of it.
But the promise of redemption, understood in the full light of the Gospels, entails something more than a mere release from suffering. When you’re tied to your bed with horrible stomach cramps, which are suddenly alleviated by ibuprofen, you may be tempted to call it a redemption of your suffering. But the word is more truly used when (say) those stomach cramps are actually labor pains, and their cessation is tied to the birth of a child. Then the labor is truly redeemed, that is, given a new meaning by being revealed as somehow intrinsic to the reward.
That, in fact, is the analogy Jesus uses elsewhere: “A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow, because her hour is come; but when she has brought forth the child, she remembers no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world. So also you now indeed have sorrow; but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice; and your joy no man shall take from you” (John 16:21-2).
What Jesus promises us not merely that his arrival will redeem us — liberate us from slavery to sin, ransom our captivity, etc. — but that it reveals the newly intrinsic nature of the trials that we’ve undergone and even, in some mysterious way, his presence throughout those trials.
That is why he tells his disciples to “stand erect and raise your heads” when the terrible signs begin to happen. If the anagogical sense, whereby he refers to the end times, signifies that we ought to rejoice at the signs as extrinsic indications of his presence, then the moral sense, whereby we understand how to live in the here and now, gives another layer of meaning to the tribulations he promises.
Suffering itself, in the dispensation of the new law, is liberating. It’s liberating not apart from Christ, but because all suffering can be united to his suffering. Experienced in this way, suffering is shown for what it is — a way of stripping away the thorns from around our hearts, burning out our cankers, making straight within us what has been crooked. It heals us (usually, at any rate) on the level of natural virtue, and not merely on some supernatural level, inaccessible to human reason.
That is why — even though there are such things as victim souls — the usual sort of suffering given to the ordinary holy Christian is not that of which pious legends are made. It is precisely enough (at least at first) to heal on the natural level, where we are all in need of psychic healing. In the ordinary course of things, we first become perfect there, and those around us recognize what appears as natural virtue, though it has a supernatural source — and then they say, “See how these Christians love one another!”
Only after that natural perfection has been supernaturally reached through the graces entangled with suffering. Only then, in some cases, God asks for the sort of total rejection of human goods that one finds in the Desert Fathers.
Suffering can detach us from what is awry in our own hearts, and teach us to hold what we love in the world lightly, and esteem it at a right value, as being impermanent. That, I think, is the moral lesson of these end times prophecies, the story of not only how to die the Christian death, but to live the Christian life. When your suffering comes — and it will — you can shrink from it. But if you understand that it is, as it were, merely another manifestation of the Lord who is described as a refining fire (Malachi 3:2), then you will welcome with open arms the liberating flames that burn the dross away.
A blessed penitential season of Advent to all of you!