I’m a child of the 1970’s and a big thrift shopper. On one trip I discovered one of those big aqua blue picture bibles they used to have in doctor’s offices at a local resale shop. Some of you might remember them. They had very colorful and intricate illustrations and so for nostalgia, since I remember enjoying them myself when I was a little girl, I bought one for my oldest daughter Lauren who was around 4-years-old at the time.
On the way home she was sitting happily in her car seat flipping through the pages and then all of a sudden I heard her take in a gasp of air and she said with fear in her voice “Ooooh mama, this book is not for kids!”
And I immediately had a series of panicky flashes of all the terrible things that could be stuck in the pages of that book from God-only-knows who donated it – so I pulled over and asked her to show me what she was looking at and she held up the book and there was a rather graphic illustration of the crucifixion. And she was right. In that moment I realized I had handed a book to my toddler featuring pictures of a violent murder.
Sometimes I think the striking image of the cross that made my 4-year-old gasp no longer hits us with its full force. We have become desensitized and dulled to the violence of it all. The crucifix has been tamed to the point of being a flimsy fashion statement we wear as earrings or tattoos without hesitation.
I mean, really, isn’t it rather startling and unnerving that the primary symbol of our faith is an instrument of torture? Not unlike a modern day religion choosing the symbol of the electric chair or the gas chamber. Without question, the cross is a wild, disturbing and unusual symbol for a religion. So, what are we to make of this?
Jesus says “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Dying to self is hard. It’s a risk, a leap of faith, because dying to self (fighting our “every man for himself” and “survival of the fittest” instincts) causes us no small bit of fear and anxiety in us, right?
The realization that he is going to die unsettles even Jesus himself. He is troubled and tempted to ask for a reprieve from the bitter end he knows is in sight. Our scriptures say that on the night before he dies, Jesus fell on his face prayed, saying, “God, my Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; (but then ultimately surrenders in saying) but not my will, but yours.” We see a very vulnerable and human side of Jesus here. He is deeply troubled by the tough decisions and choices he has to make. Yet he holds true to God’s will and continues to love and forgive us even as we hang him on the cross.
When we surrender to God’s mysterious echo in our hearts and allow the controlling and conniving, manipulative self to fall away and die, the deeper self will emerge. But this route doesn’t always look so promising…so fruitful…in fact, it can look very painful.
Unwanted, undeserved and seemingly pointless suffering visits every human being in one way or another. Many of us struggle with high levels of fear, anxiety, depression, emptiness, aimlessness, and isolation. Perhaps some of you are struggling with some of these feelings right now. This is not an unusual reality for our world today. There is no ignoring the harsh reality of human suffering – our own and others. Every time we read or watch the news we hear of the tragedies of war, children dying around the globe from drought and starvation, human trafficking, covid, cancer (or other terrible diseases) have touched so many of us.
So what does all this suffering say about the character of our God? We might ask ourselves, If Christ came into the world to redeem it, why doesn’t it look more redeemed?
This question reminds me of the conversation that Jesus had with the two thieves that hung beside him on the cross. The first thief, often dubbed ‘the bad thief’ voices, what I think is a very legitimate and honest response to suffering. In our own frustration and confusion, haven’t we all at one time or another thought like the “bad thief” “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
Our understanding and response to suffering is rooted in centuries of shared, collective wisdom about what we call the “paschal mystery.” For years I wondered what does Paschal Mystery mean? It’s one of those super churchy words that everyone pretends to understand. But, it simply is a reference to Jesus’ life, death & resurrection and what we have slowly come to understand about this mystery over the years…the centuries…The Paschal mystery is kind of the lens through which Christians look at all of life.
The Paschal Mystery is basically the process of dying and rising, death and new life. We see the pattern of the paschal mystery all around us and in our own lives. We experience this mystery in the dying and rising each year as we go through the different seasons. Think of the practice of the “controlled burn” when certain patches of land are purposefully set on fire in order to improve the habitat for plants and wildlife. It’s hard to believe that from the charred tree trunks and withered, blackened brush can come a healthy ecosystem with stronger trees and plants. But that’s exactly what happens.
We are a part of nature too. We also have our own dyings and risings. Sometimes these are obvious — we listen to stories of our many saints and martyrs throughout history, right up until today, who give witness to the pattern of seeds that die and are buried so that new life may rise. In our own lives, we see this pattern in humanity, when a grandparent dies or a baby is born.
But other dyings and risings are less obvious. An experience of dying might be when we have an argument with a friend that leaves us feeling upset, or we see a homeless mother and child and don’t know what to do to help (we die a little with each experience of conflict and sadness).
An experience of rising might be reconciling with that person who hurt us or talking with your family about the homeless mother and child and volunteering for an organization like the St. Vincent de Paul that cares for people in dire situations. All of life has this rhythm of dying and rising. The Paschal Mystery is Jesus Christ’s experience of suffering, death, and new life that gives us hope that there really is light even our darkest hours. That God wins…that love never fails.
The Paschal Mystery assures us that God does not inflict or will our suffering, but is with us in it. Thousands and thousands of years of human experience tell us: if we trust God in times of suffering and death and don’t cling too tightly to our sense of how things “should be,” our surrender, somehow, eventually brings us to a deeper fullness of life.