Redemptive Suffering

14 September 2007 Exaltation of the Cross
Numbers 21, 4b-9; Philippians 2, 6-11; John 3, 13-17

Today, we celebrate the exaltation of the cross. How can the cross — a symbol of suffering and death — be a source of adoration? Let us look first into the symbol of the cross. When one looks at the cross today, we easily forget what it actually is. Crosses nowadays are embellished and has become not just a faith symbol but a fashion accessory. We find ourselves looking at crosses on sale and saying, “What a beautiful cross pendant!” But the cross was a symbol of horror and great suffering: the Roman government in ancient times crucify criminals. And Jesus was killed on the cross.

We shall not take the academic road to the question of suffering that would lead to a more generalized philosophical, theological and speculative discussion on why the reality of suffering in a world created by a loving God. What we will tackle is the more practical, concrete and much more strategic level called, the ‘survival level’ where we provide support and comfort to the person who is experiencing his or her suffering — her cross.

What we mean by suffering is the ‘distress brought about by the actual or perceived impending threat to the integrity or continued existence of the whole person’ (Eric Cassell, The Nature of Suffering). This means that the ‘sufferer’ recognizes that he or she will never be able to obtain some good that is seriously important for them. For example: health, mobility, a loving marriage, a trusted friend, a decent job. When these goods are threatened, we suffer. Fr. James Keenan, SJ in his book, Moral Wisdom, notes four defining experiences of those who suffer. First, they discover the necessary goods that they lost. Two weeks ago, while at mass, I felt a general weakness, only to discover that my blood sugar was at my highest at 250 (normal is 120). My health — and my ministry— is thus threatened. Second, the sense of loss is heightened by a sense of isolation. I cannot eat what I love most: chocolates, ice cream and cheesecake. Not like those without diabetes who can enjoy them. Third, the sufferer searches for ways to re-negotiate the future, trying to recoup what was lost. I now have to follow a strict diet, take Metformin, and in case I crave for something sweet, I use an artificial sweetener. Fourth, the sufferer looks to their many relationships to see who will support them in their search for ways to renegotiate their future. Some call them their support group. I call them my community of Jesuits.

There are sufferings which are senseless like the following victims of hazing in UP: Gonzalo Mariano Albert (1954, Upsilon Sigma Phi), Ferdinand Tabtab (1967, Alpha Phi Omega), Arbel Liwag (1984, Beta Sigma), Joselito Hernandez (1992, Scintilla Juris), Mark Martin (1995, Epsilon Chi), Alexander Icasiano (1998, Alpha Phi Beta), Marlon Villanueva (2006, Alpha Phi Omega), Cris Anthony Mendez (2007, Sigma Rho). Those who died from fraternity wars are Rolando Perez (1969, Upsilon Sigma Phi), Rolando Abad (1977, Alpha Phi Omega), Dennis Venturina (1994, Sigma Rho), Den Reyes (2000, Alpha Phi Beta), and a non-frat member, Nino Calinao (1999, a case of mistaken identity, was near tambayan of Scintilla Juris at odds at that time with Sigma Rho.)

Human reason and the scriptures cannot explain suffering. Edward Schillebeeckx OP, said, “The Christian message does not give an explanation of evil or our history of suffering. That must be made clear from the start. Even for Christians, suffering remains impenetrable and incomprehensible, and provokes rebellion. Nor will the Christian blasphemously claim that God himself required the death of Jesus as compensation for what we make of our history.”

Though having different responses to suffering, many religions share the last word: they give it to the good, and not to evil. Their concern is how to overcome suffering. What kind of suffering then is redemptive and deserves exaltation? It is the suffering which people choose as their responsible concern for other people’s suffering. It is an “elected suffering” (Keenan) and the primary model is God himself. The second reading tells us that Jesus who is God ‘emptied himself and took the form of a slave… humbled himself, became obedient to death on the cross.’ Therefore, if we closely look at the Gospel and the first reading, the focus is God who decided to help the people who are suffering and have been bitten by serpents. It is God who chose to help those who suffer. This is the suffering we choose as part of our loving: the parents who choose to work hard for their family, the student volunteers who choose to forego their free time to teach children, the friend who says, “I do not know what to do with your brokenness, nor do I have answers to your problems, but I will walk with you and be with you whatever happens.” Or take the story of a faculty member whose wife died. A colleague tried to comfort him by explaining death philosophically. His student came, put his arms on his shoulders, and stayed that way without saying anything. The teacher said later that he was more consoled by his student than his colleague. The student entered the heart of his suffering professor. In more ways than one, this is the underlying template of the lives of saints and heroes whose memory of elected suffering for the faith or for humanity we still commemorate. Notice that feast days of saints and heroes are marked on the day of their death.

Therefore, what do we celebrate in the ‘exaltation of the cross’? We celebrate Jesus who deliberately choose to accompany us in our suffering. Just like a friend: when we are heartbroken, we would rather be with a friend who also experienced it. And thus, we also celebrate those who have given their lives for our sakes. Those whom we call our companions.

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