We know that if we go on the journey toward Jerusalem with Jesus we are going to be confronted by his terrible human suffering as one of us and invited into the mystery of the divine one suffering for us. And if we follow the news we will be confronted by the suffering of our brothers and sisters and fellow creatures near and far. It seems that the season of Lent invites us to listen to the wisdom and compassion hidden in suffering as part of the process of making room for new resurrection life that we trust is to come. We allow ourselves to be emptied out so that we are ready to celebrate. (RCL Isaiah 55:1-9; Psalm 63:1-9; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; and Luke 13:1-9.)
I do not presume to understand fully the nature of suffering or have a fool proof theology about why it is in our lives (despite a life time of working in hospitals, with refugees, and in parish life and in my own life having plenty of exposure to suffering) but our readings this last week do suggest some things to me that may be useful to reflect on.
Suffering is an inevitable part of creaturely life. That is, we are born into an embodied life in a physical world where hunger and thirst, illness and injury, death and destruction, are all part of how the world operates. (As well, of course, as pleasure and fullness, growth and vigour, and creativity and procreation!) The amount of suffering does not seem to be evenly distributed and even though some parts of the biblical tradition seem to suggest that this is a consequence of poor or wrong decisions by parents or the sufferers themselves (such as the book of Proverbs) there are other threads of the tradition that are clear that it is not the fault of the individual (Job, Ecclesiastes). And there are sayings, such as in the portion of Isaiah we hear this week, that suggest that it is not necessarily one or the other but that our choices can contribute to our suffering – why do you labour, or aspire to, that which is not bread?
Jesus in the chapter from Luke certainly cautions us against assuming that we are any better than those who suffer more terribly than we do. Indeed the suffering of others should remind us of our own mortality and we should “lean into” that humbling knowledge and be led to repentance or having our minds changed and renewed. And Jesus’ image of the non fruit bearing fig tree is provocative. The fig tree in Scripture is often a symbol or reminder of Israel and the quality and fruitfulness or otherwise of the chosen peoples’ relationship with God. In Matthew’s gospel story of the fig tree being cursed for lack of fruit there is a strong sense of judgement and punishment. Here the lack of fruit is responded to patiently and mercifully. Although the fig tree is still expected to bear fruit, it is just given a little tender care to help it get there! It seems that even suffering and failure need not prevent us being fruitful if we are offered, and accept, mercy and support. (We could have fun playing with the metaphor that the help we need is to dig in the manure around our roots and let it be nutrition to us?!)
So why is it important to consider the part suffering plays in our Lenten journey rather than just hurry as quickly as possible to the good news of Easter Day? Well it does seem that our suffering can open our hearts and minds to our kinship with Jesus. He was fully human and his suffering was very real – he was betrayed, brutalised and abandoned. When we allow suffering to humble us and empty us out then we are more able to companion Jesus on his journey of suffering love and learn from him the path of love. Our lessons in love are in how to love him who first loved us and also in how to bear the knowledge that we are loved completely and passionately. And out of this one certainty we grow in our capacity to love others and ourselves in all the uncertainties that life tends to deliver.
Part of the reason that the vulnerability that suffering leads us into can purify or refine us in the way of love (as does beauty and joy but at the moment we are considering suffering) is that suffering takes away our ability to control life and therefore reduces our illusion that we are in charge. So this stripping bare can become a holy experience and make us purer as is precious metal that has been refined in fire. And in needing to become more dependent on God and those God gives to us to care for us, we can become more humble, grateful and desirous of the things of God. When we realise how fleeting everything and everyone is then we can be truly grateful for all the good and precious moments we do have. And when the banquets of life come we are indeed ready to celebrate!
Jesus did say that if we were to follow him we needed to take up our cross also. This does not however mean, I believe, that we need to go looking for difficult and painful experiences (although young initiates in various traditions will seek difficult tasks that involve physical and mental challenge in order to grow). Life usually gives us suffering enough. But if we are in true and humble connected relationship with our God and our own self then we can dare to step into the breach with those who suffer and be tender and attentive companions. Suffering can strip away the illusion of not only our own sense of control but the sense of separateness. Great beauty and joy can help us feel connected with the whole but it is in the place of suffering and struggle that our belonging to the whole becomes real or not.
Many of us shy away from the suffering of others not because we do not care but because we don’t know how to care. Sometimes there is something we can do to fix another’s suffering – help them get the best medical care or legal representation, petition those is authority and have a law changed, do some shopping or the gardening, bake a casserole or take them out to coffee – but often we are not called to fix but to companion. Often what suffering needs is someone to hold hands with in prayer and quiet company, someone to listen to an old story or a secret never told before, sometimes what is desired is news from the outside world or the simple wisdom of your experience. And sometimes what suffering needs is a witness. When Jesus was on the cross he did not seem to expect anyone to take him down or rescue him but he did cry out in thirst, in fear that he was forsaken, and the need to organise the care of his mother and his beloved disciple. Our Lord needed companions in his time of suffering.
So while it is confronting and disturbing, spending time in the presence of the suffering of Jesus as part of our Lent experience we can be better prepared for those times of suffering in our life – our own, that of others, and the suffering in our world. And we who have been hollowed out by such suffering are all the more ready for the feasting and rejoicing that is our promise as Isaiah reminded us. Easter is our foretaste of the banquet that life is also meant to be.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, who suffered as one of us and for us, be our companion in the time of suffering and celebration. Come empty us and fill us with your grace.