This summer has been marked by a great deal of suffering on the part of many people. Well over 100,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States alone, with hundreds of thousands more around the world. In addition, we are still living under a degree of restriction regarding our freedom to move about and engage in life and business as we knew it, and many among us look to the future with deep concern on account of jobs lost and finances in tatters.
At such times we naturally tend to reflect on hope, and even run the risk of losing our sense of hope. The prophet Jeremiah was in such a position when we meet him in today’s first reading. Jeremiah was angry and questioning God’s providence because, although he preached the word of the Lord faithfully, Jeremiah was constantly persecuted and had been thrown into prison. Like many of us today, Jeremiah demanded to know how God’s apparent actions, or lack thereof, could be squared with his understanding of God as all-good, all–powerful, and all-loving.
If we join with the prophet and ask why we suffer despite our faith in God, our Lord supplies no easy answer but in fact raises the stakes for us in the Gospel. There he announces to his disciples that they should count on suffering, not only despite their faith in him, but precisely because of their faith in him. The Lord challenges his followers: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt 16:24-25).
Having faith does not thus mean having a life of constant happiness and contentment; rather, first it means trusting in Jesus in both happy and tragic moments of life. Next, it means learning what is truly important in life, and with this lesson in mind, having a deeper appreciation for the “folly” of the cross. Why does it have to be this hard? Why does God not remove suffering altogether from our midst, whether it be caused by COVID-19 or any of the other myriad sources of human misery?
God does not make suffering go away in the manner of the gods and goddesses of pagan mythology who are said to have rescued some persons from distress and thrown obstacles at others. These so-called “gods” are described as acting in their own interests, wooing and punishing human beings by turns. God rather acts in our interests; to put it simply, he loves us, and thus makes himself vulnerable to us, even enduring suffering for us—for this is the nature of love.
Jeremiah sensed his own vulnerability resulting from his faithful service to the Lord, and he sought to escape it. Every person who reflects honestly on his or her life does the same at times, recoiling from the pain of life and repeating with reference to ourselves the words of Peter: “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” In this present season of suffering we are all learning that self-giving love is seen beautifully in the generous “helpers,” the nurses, EMTs, physicians, and so many others who are willing to risk suffering to save complete strangers.
As Christians we find the perfect sign of God’s love for us when we look to the cross and see in the crucified Christ one who was sinless but suffered freely to redeem us from sin. Mindful that he walked this path before us, let us resolve not to lose hope, but to be sources of renewed hope for all whom we encounter.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.
Photo: The Church of the Condemnation, the Holy Land, by Seth Harbaugh