At the start of Holy Week, Christians have always focused their attention on the meaning of suffering. In the fourth century, according to St. Ambrose, the entire Book of Job was read aloud at Mass. The whole book — all 42 chapters! That’s one long reading, and there were no pews in the churches in those days. To stand through it all was a first-hand experience of suffering!
The Book of Job is the Bible’s longest meditation on human suffering. Its hero, Job, grieves the death of family members. His body afflicts him in constant pain. He endures the further sorrow of “friends” who say his suffering is all his fault. And then the book concludes in mystery. God tells him, in essence, “Trust me. I’m God.”
Job’s answer would come in time. As St. John Paul II said in 1994: “The full and definitive answer to Job is Christ … In Christ even pain is taken up into the mystery of infinite charity, which radiates out from God the Trinity and becomes an expression of love and instrument of redemption — that is, it becomes salvific pain.”
Salvific pain. Saving sorrow. This is an idea we find very strange today. Suffering is what we want to be saved FROM. How can pain be any good at all?
Yet salvific pain is the idea at the heart of this Holy Week — and indeed at the heart of the Gospel.
If we have lived at all, we know that suffering is part of life. If we have loved at all, we know that suffering is an inevitable part of love. In love we allow the sorrows of another person to become our own — because we can relieve them, perhaps, but we cannot make them go away.
Jesus took on all the sorrows of all the people who ever lived. He shared them in his body. He did not make them go away, but he showed us how to get through them, and he walked the path of sorrow with us. He showed us the way THROUGH sorrow — to glory.
He wanted to show us that there is no other way to glory but through love. And there can be no love — no shared life — without suffering.
Suffering is redemptive. Whatever we endure we can offer on behalf of others, just as Jesus offered the pain of the cross — and all the other sorrows we remember during this Holy Week.
Whatever we suffer, we can “offer it up.” “What does it mean to offer something up?” Pope Benedict asked that question and proposed an answer. He said it means we can “insert” our annoyances, great and small, into Jesus’ great suffering, “so that they somehow became part of the treasury of compassion so greatly needed by the human race.” He said: “In this way, even the small inconveniences of daily life … acquire meaning and contribute to the economy of good and of human love.”
Of course, not all suffering is small. But we practice with the small sorrows so that we’re ready for the big ones — because they’re inevitable. If we dare to love people, we will, in time, have to grieve with them or grieve for them. Love means, in part, that we acquire the habit of suffering on behalf of another: a friend, a spouse, a child, a grandchild, a parent, a sibling … even a stranger.
Holy Week brings us face to face with difficult realities — truths we’d rather avoid or ignore altogether. But if we do not acknowledge them, we will not see the world as it really is — and we’ll miss out on the true joy of salvation, which is the unimaginably profound love of God for you and for me.