Throughout the past week I have been reflecting on redemptive suffering. I have been focusing on giving my physical pain to Christ in union with his suffering on the cross. I having to cope with abdominal pain, migraines, and now pain behind and above my eye (around my eyelid) I have also been trying to let go and let God, instead of worrying about these problems. Yesterday I read a section of Pope John Paul II’s letter Salvifici Doloris which focuses on the redemptive suffering of Christ. Blessed JPII brings great insight into the suffering that Christ endured on the cross for our salvation. Salvifici Doloris is very apropos to read at this time of year.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” These words, spoken by Christ in His conversation with Nicodemus, introduce us into the very heart of God’s salvific work. They also express the very essence of Christian soteriology, that is, of the theology of salvation. Salvation means liberation from evil, and for this reason it is closely bound up with the problem of suffering. According to the words spoken to Nicodemus, God gives His Son to “the world” to free men from evil, which bears within itself the definitive and absolute perspective on suffering. At the same time, the very word “gives” (“gave”) indicates that this liberation must be achieved by the only begotten Son through His own suffering. And in this, love is manifested, the infinite love both of that only-begotten Son and of the Father who for this reason “gives” His Son. .This is love for man, love for the “world”: it is salvific love.
The words quoted above from Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus refer to suffering in its fundamental and definitive meaning. God gives His only-begotten Son so that man “should not perish” and the meaning of these words “should not perish” is precisely specified by the words that follow: “but have eternal life.”
Man “perishes” when he loses “eternal life.” The opposite of salvation is not, therefore, only temporal suffering, any kind of suffering, but the definitive suffering: the loss of eternal life, being rejected by God–damnation. The only-begotten Son was given to humanity primarily to protect man against this definitive evil and against definitive suffering. In His salvific mission, the Son must therefore strike evil right at its transcendental roots from which it develops in human history. These transcendental roots of evil are grounded in sin and death: for they are at the basis of the loss of eternal life. The mission of the only begotten Son consists in conquering sin and death. He conquers sin by His obedience unto death, and He overcomes death by His resurrection.
As a result of Christ’s salvific work, man exists on earth with the hope of eternal life and holiness. And even though the victory over sin and death achieved by Christ in His cross and resurrection does not abolish temporal suffering from human life, nor free from suffering the whole historical dimension of human existence, it nevertheless throws a new light upon this dimension and upon every suffering; the light of salvation. This is the light of the Gospel, that is, of the Good News. At the heart of this light is the truth expounded in the conversation with Nicodemus: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” This truth radically changes the picture of man’s history and his earthly situation: in spite of the sin that took root in this history both as an original inheritance and as the “sin of the world” and as the sum of personal sins, God the Father has loved the only-begotten Son, that is, He loves Him in a lasting way; and then in time, precisely through this all-surpassing love, He “gives” this Son, that He may strike at the very roots of human evil and thus draw close in a salvific way to the whole world of suffering in which man shares.
Christ goes towards His passion and death with full awareness of the mission that He has to fulfill precisely in this way. Precisely by means of this suffering He must bring it about “that man should not perish, but have eternal life.” Precisely by means of His cross He must strike at the roots of evil, planted in the history of man and in human souls. Precisely by means of His cross He must accomplish the work of salvation. This work, in the plan of eternal Love, has a redemptive character.
Christ goes toward His own suffering, aware of its saving power; He goes forward in obedience to the Father, but primarily He is united to the Father in this love with which He has loved the world and man in the world. And for this reason St. Paul will write of Christ: “He loved me and gave himself for me.”
The Scriptures had to be fulfilled. There were many messianic texts in the Old Testament which foreshadowed the sufferings of the future Anointed One of God. Among all these, particularly touching is the one which is commonly called the Fourth song of the Suffering servant, in the Book of Isaiah. The Song of the Suffering Servant contains a description in which it is possible, in a certain sense, to identify the stages of Christ’s passion in their various details: the arrest, the humiliation, the blows, the spitting, the contempt for the prisoner, the unjust sentence, and then the scourging, the crowning with thorns and the mocking, the carrying of the cross. the crucifixion and the agony. CONTINUED