Why do we suffer? This question has been plaguing me the past few weeks as there have been several deaths within my friends and family. And it’s a totally legit question. Why, on earth, do I have to endure suffering? If I truly believe in and live out the Gospel, that I am a beloved daughter of God and Christ desires me to be His Bride, why would He then allow me to feel pain? In the words of one of my favorite people, Servant of God Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, “Unless there is a Good Friday in your life, there can be no Easter Sunday.”
As Fr. Stan Fortuna sings in his song “Everybody Got 2 Suffer”:
“You think that you the only one that got to suffer?
You think that you the only one with pain to suffer?
Everybody got a thing they gotta suffer.
Rich or poor don’t matter gotta suffer.”
The first time I heard this song, I was in high school and my best friend was going through a truly difficult time in her family. We used to play this song over and over listening to the words – I have gone so far as to memorize them! – because this song helped to put our suffering into context. Everyone suffers. Look around you. Whether it’s your next door neighbor or you read about it in the paper or maybe it’s in your own home, suffering exists. You didn’t get in to the college you wanted, you develop a terminal illness, someone in your family passes away unexpectedly. While these are different kinds of suffering, they are all painful to the person experiencing them – and as my mom always said, you never minimize another person’s pain.
For a Christian though, suffering is not the end of the story. There is hope. As Pope Benedict XVI says in his encyclical Spe Salvi (In hope we are saved), “It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love.”
Christ gives our suffering meaning. In fact, He became incarnate with the explicit purpose of suffering and dying for us on the cross. “Man is worth so much to God that he himself became man in order to suffer with man in an utterly real way—in flesh and blood—as is revealed to us in the account of Jesus's Passion” (Spe Salvi). He came to suffer with us in our humanity and for our sake to reunite us with God the Father. Jesus loves us to death – literally! And the completion of this love is found in the promise of the Resurrection. As we say in the Hymn of the Resurrection, “We bow to Your Cross, O Christ, and we praise and glorify Your Holy Resurrection!...Through the Cross, joy has come to all the world.”
As we enter the Great Fast, we are reminded more concretely and intentionally that suffering is a part of our earthly life. As Christians, we enter into periods of fasting and prayer to remind us that life’s pleasures and food do not alone satisfy our deepest desires – only Christ can truly satisfy us. The key to this fasting and prayer is that it is done with purpose! No, we are not entering a TV show called “The Biggest Loser: Eastern Christian Edition” – we will leave that to the celebrities. We embrace this every-day, voluntary suffering to unite ourselves with Christ’s suffering for us, and to offer our bodies in a tangible and deliberate way, both for our sake and for the whole world. We endure this momentary affliction because of the promise of Pascha. We know that by death, Christ has trampled eternal death and opened the passage to everlasting life. “The present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads toward a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey” (Spe Salvi). Heaven is our goal and it is definitely worth waiting and working for!
Everybody gotta suffa, but Christ came and endured the Passion on Great and Holy Friday so that our suffering may not be in vain but may be in light of the Resurrection. May this hope fill our struggles during the Fast and spur us to endure our daily crosses in anticipation of the Pascha to come.
Let us begin the time of this bright Fast,
giving ourselves to spiritual struggle.
Let us sanctify our soul and purify our flesh.
Let us not only fast from food;
let us also abstain from every passion and cultivate spiritual virtues.
And let us faithfully persevere in this,
so that we may be worthy to see the holy Passion of Christ our God
and the joy of His holy Resurrection.
Cheesefare Sunday Vespers