Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings : – Most of us find the idea of suffering abhorrent and will avoid it if we possibly can. We view suffering as failure or even as punishment from God and in consequence see it all negatively. Yet the Christ we follow and worship as Saviour of the world was one who won the greatest of victories, that over death and sin, precisely through taking on suffering. There seems to be at very least a contradiction here and perhaps we can make some attempt to see both the choiced suffering of Jesus and that of his creation, which is imposed upon us in a different light. This is not to suggest that death, and the pain it brings either physical or mental, is an illusion or that we become a group of masochists continually seeking out pain.
The tradition that suffering is somehow linked to transgression and failure and is punishable by God is of course very old, as we see from the Old Testament. In the work of Jeremiah, (31:31-34) we see how God promises to restore the Jewish nation after its exile in Babylon and the cruel ravaging of the nation with the destruction of its monarchy and aristocracy. In this passage a chastened nation is promised a wholly new covenant relationship, one in which they will be obedient to God’s law and all will go well. The telling line is “They broke that covenant of mine, so I had to show them who was master.” In this simple but primitive understanding of the divine-human relationship, modelled on that of earthly rulers and their subjects, there exists a straightforward system of punishment and reward. It suggests that when things go wrong with creation we have only ourselves to blame, for we have sinned and must put things to rights. The tragedy for Israel is that its failings and their results never seem to alter things; all we seem to have is more of the same. Yet this is not true of reality, is it? After all, children learn from making errors: falling over produces tears, better balance helps. Scientists tell us that it is through innumerable ‘wrong-turnings’ that progress is made.
Over the centuries Jewish writers explored this concept of repeated failure and suffering and gradually began to see how defective and inadequate it was. After all, good people suffer and die along with the bad as we see with Job. Those righteous for God’s law can be horribly put to death, as we see with the Books of Esther, Maccabees and the great Servant Songs of Isaiah, not to mention Syrian and Iraqi modern Christian martyrs. By the time of Christ and the writings of St Paul, we can see situations in which the entire created order seems to be at odds with its creator and not necessarily through any deliberate fault on its part.
The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews (5:7-9) daringly explores the idea of vulnerability and weakness in God himself. Incarnate in Christ, God the Son deliberately enters into our fallen and marred creation in complete solidarity with us. As immortal God he is incapable of suffering and death, made human in Jesus he can, and willingly submits himself to all the pain and suffering which mortal beings of necessity are a prey to. Hebrews makes clear that this is not a pleasant or easy path for the Son to have followed, but that in doing so he truly identifies with us, he really does become one of us, so that his prayer to the Father can be uttered from the depths of his abject despair and his total solidarity with us. If through this exchange we become divine, most assuredly by it divinity has also taken on frailty and failure and the threat of the annihilation which is the cause of all our fears.
In our gospel, from John (12:20-33) we see this etched out in a homely but shattering analogy. Jesus has returned to the environs of Jerusalem and was staying with Lazarus (the one Jesus raised from the dead) and his sisters. The Jewish Sanhedrin had already met to determine his fate and resort to the time honoured idea of the sacrifice of a scapegoat in order, so they claim, to protect the rest. Jesus was by this time well aware of their hostility and malign intentions towards himself, indeed, would have to have been intellectually blind or stupid not to have known his fate. So he gives a developed and well constructed meditation o suffering – his own and that of others who will follow him. “Unless a wheat grain falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain….” He speaks of a process of the absolute destruction of the wheat seed which thereby and only thereby produces the next year’s crop. There are times when this degree of suffering is the only thing that can recreate and renew a situation. The levels of suffering will be horrendous, but the end result will be worthwhile. Those of us who suffer debilitating illness or injuries will have felt something of this process; those divorced or separated; faced with the loss of loved children will know of it too; for such suffering can only be deeply harrowing and may frequently leave the sufferer at a complete loss as to how to make anything positive from the experience. Christians suffering in Syria and Iraq will be living it out on a daily basis. In this we will experience the self-emptying of God the Son. It won’t be a good experience, for it wasn’t for him either. Hebrews describes it thus: “Christ offered up prayer and entreaty aloud and in silent tears…”. John’s Jesus says: “Now my soul is troubled, what shall I say: Father, save me from this hour? But it was for this very reason that I have come to this hour.” It will be a kind of dying, and in it all we will have to cling onto is the truth that Jesus underwent this in faith, his faith – quite unrelieved at the time – that his Father would not ultimately desert him. It is what we all live for as believers, Christians who follow the Christ who was vindicated by his Father, who came back from the dead.