How do we participate in Christ’s Sufferings?
Because we are joined to Him, as members of His Body. Because we are joined to Christ, our suffering is joined with His, and participates in the Redemption He accomplished. The New Testament authors teach this same thing.
- “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.”(1 Cor 12:26)
- “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.”(2 Cor 1:5).
- “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh …. knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus.”(2 Cor 4:8-11, 14).
- “That I may know him (Christ) and the power of his Resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil 3:10-11).
- “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions (Col 1:24).
Does that mean that Christ’s work was insufficient? No, Christ’s work was sufficient for its purpose. But God has graciously allowed us to participate in Christ’s work of redeeming the world, the greatest of all God’s works. Pope John Paul II writes:
For, whoever suffers in union with Christ— just as the Apostle Paul bears his “tribulations” in union with Christ— not only receives from Christ that strength already referred to but also “completes” by his suffering “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions”.
Salvifici Doloris, 24. The sufferings of Christ created the good of the world’s redemption. This good in itself is inexhaustible and infinite. No man can add anything to it. But at the same time, in the mystery of the Church as his Body, Christ has in a sense opened his own redemptive suffering to all human suffering. In so far as man becomes a sharer in Christ’s sufferings—in any part of the world and at any time in history—to that extent he in his own way completes the suffering through which Christ accomplished the Redemption of the world. Does this mean that the Redemption achieved by Christ is not complete? No. It only means that the Redemption, accomplished through satisfactory love, remains always open to all love expressed in human suffering.
Those who share in the sufferings of Christ preserve in their own sufferings a very special particle of the infinite treasure of the world’s Redemption, and can share this treasure with others (Salvifici Doloris, 27).
Mary is the exemplar of suffering in union with Christ, as she was told by Simeon, “and a sword will pierce even your own soul.” (Luke 2:35)
When St. Paul writes, “For we are God’s co-workers” (1 Cor 3:9) that is not just for Paul or for the Apostles, but for all of us who are joined to Christ through baptism. By our union with Christ, our suffering gets to count, as a participation in His suffering; our suffering becomes meaningful in the realm of eternity.
Pope John Paul II writes:
In the Cross of Christ not only is the Redemption accomplished through suffering, but also human suffering itself has been redeemed,. … Every man has his own share in the Redemption. Each one is also called to share in that suffering through which the Redemption was accomplished. He is called to share in that suffering through which all human suffering has also been redeemed. In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ (Salvifici Doloris, 19. See also Pope John Paul II’s General Audience of November 9, 1988, titled “The Meaning of Suffering in the Light of Christ’s Passion.”)
Offering it up
So what does this phrase mean? We are priests of God by our baptism. (1 Peter 2:9-10)
“I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Romans 12:1)
We offer up our lives and our sufferings formally, in the Mass, by consciously offering ourselves up with our sufferings, along with Christ to God the Father during the Offertory. Informally, we “offer it up” simply by asking God, in the midst of our suffering, to join our suffering to Christ’s, and to use our suffering.
How should we respond to suffering?
- By worshiping God: Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head, and he fell to the ground and worshiped. He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, And naked I shall return there. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD.” Through all this Job did not sin nor did he blame God (Job 1:20-22).
- By examining our hearts: “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves.”(2 Cor 13:5)
- By offering our sufferings up to God: “Is anyone among you suffering? Then he must pray” (James 5:13).
- By giving thanks: “in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thess 5:18).
- By rejoicing that we have been counted worthy to suffer for Christ: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.” (Col 1:24)
- By looking to Christ’s example, who suffered for us to demonstrate to us both the magnitude of our sin and the greater magnitude of His infinite love for us. He received the cup of suffering from His Father, in humble obedience, and in doing so perfectly demonstrated His love for the Father: And He also says, “Shall I not drink the cup which the Father has given me?” (John 18:11). “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt”, … “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, thy will be done” (Matthew 26:39, 42).
- By looking to Christ’s return and the life to come: “Fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1:13).
The relation between our present life and the life to come is the condition for the meaningfulness of our sufferings in this present life. The gospel shows us that suffering is an opportunity given to us to participate in our future blessedness by offering our present sufferings, in union with Christ’s sufferings, to God in self-giving sacrifice. Our suffering then takes on a whole different dimension, transformed from the occasion of a fist-shaking interrogation of God or cause for doubting His goodness or existence into the greatest opportunity to show Him trust and self-donation, without the least futility, knowing that it will be repaid a hundred fold. (Matt 19:26) This is why the Christian martyrs rejoiced when they were chosen for martyrdom, and why after being flogged the Apostles went away “rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name.” (Acts 5:41) Apart from the gospel, much of our suffering would seem gratuitous and even sinister. But in the light of the gospel we see that our suffering is a gift, a gift of the same sort as this present life, but even greater. It is the gift of an opportunity to give ourselves entirely to God in the greatest possible expression of love, i.e. sacrifice: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.”
Jesus Christ, when He redeemed us with plentiful redemption, took not away the pains and sorrows which in such large proportion are woven together in the web of our mortal life. He transformed them into motives of virtue and occasions of merit; and no man can hope for eternal reward unless he follow in the blood-stained footprints of his Saviour. “If we suffer with Him, we shall also reign with Him.” Christ’s labors and sufferings, accepted of His own free will, have marvellously sweetened all suffering and all labor. And not only by His example, but by His grace and by the hope held forth of everlasting recompense, has He made pain and grief more easy to endure; “for that which is at present momentary and light of our tribulation, worketh for us above measure exceedingly an eternal weight of glory.” (Rerum Novarum, 21)