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~ Drawn to Arenas of Suffering ~

At Jesus’ birth the socially despised shepherds were treated to a cataclysmic orchestra of heavenly splendor, millions of angels announcing His presence on earth. Back in the cave used to shelter animals was the Christ Child, perhaps crying, perhaps sleeping, in a place that was dark, quiet and rancid with smells of animal wastes. Unlike the beautiful crèches of Christmas, the real place was ordinary, smelly, and not appealing.

Where would you have preferred to be? In that poor and sensually offensive place where the squirming of a newborn was restricted by a wrapping of swaddling clothes, or having your senses delightfully overwhelmed by the heavenly forces, the sights and sounds of which were unearthly?

Of course, those shepherds had the privilege of experiencing both. But suppose you had to choose? I would rather sit in the presence of a crying or sleeping Christ Child in a smelly and dirty dark cavern than bask in the illumination of the heavenly chorus. His humble presence is more resplendent than the singing of millions of angels.

The Christ Child was, as we were at birth, utterly dependent on His human parents. That the Creator of all would entrust His Incarnation to human care boggles my mind. What a calling! What a travesty that so many Christian denominations do not speak of Mary and Joseph, let alone honor them in prayer, liturgy and song!

As an adult, Jesus needed the help and consolation of humans. He was indeed the most humble of all of us, yet was divine. Jesus, in His passion and suffering in Gethsamane, longed for His disciples to be with Him, awake, not asleep. He was hurt by their inattentiveness and abandonment.

Would you rather have been with Jesus during that time when He couldn’t serve you, heal you, give you food or show you miracles than during the times when He could?

Jesus needed help to carry His cross. Simon of Cyrene was ordered by the Roman guards to help the Christ. Together, a mortal and an immortal who depended on the mortal, carried that cross beam upon which the Christ would hang until death. Would you change places with Simon? Or would you rather have been on the sidelines, safely watching as a spectator?

What a privilege Simon was given! He helped the Savior of the world fulfill His mission! That is the nature of our humble Christ, the divine inviting human help to free us. This is the essence of the “great commission.” Christ invites, or rather mandates, that we participate proactively in His mission of the redemption of our brothers and sisters. He did the redemptive work, to no credit to us. However, God made it clear that He commissioned us to participate in it, from caring for the infant Jesus to helping carry His cross to cavalry, and now to be His body, feet, voice and all, unto the ends of the earth.

Those who have the heart of Christ are drawn to arenas of suffering. Those who do not have solidarity with His Spirit do not comprehend this.

But, even those who do not, can relate to this scenario…You are at a splendid dinner celebration. Perhaps it is to honor a relative. Upon returning home you receive a message that a loved one has sustained a severe injury and wanted you to be with her in the hospital emergency room. She was there during your dinner.

Here are two responses: 1) You are happy that you got the message after the dinner was over, so you experienced both the joy of that and the ability to now be free to join the suffering of your loved one; 2) You react in anger that you were not called away from the dinner to immediately join in the suffering of your loved one.

I believe for most of you the joys of the dinner would have been most easily abandoned to be with your suffering loved one. That is the heart of Christ.

Jesus praying on the cross from Psalm 22 is a remarkable declaration of the Christian and human experience. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Please consider forsaking the so popular explanation, which has no biblical basis, that the Father had to look away from His Son who was made sin for us because He could not look upon sin. Biblical history is full of instances of God seeing the sins of people and being grieved by them. Jesus declaration tells of a much deeper truth, beginning with His solidarity with suffering and forsaken people. That experience of forsakenness is a vital part of the Christian and human experience.)

The film, “Therese”, is making it rounds throughout US theatres. Until her final moments in her diseased body, she suffered the pain of forsakenness. Yet she did not abandon her love for Christ.

This is the theme of the popular “Footprints” story. The person learns that the single trail of footprints was not a sign of his traveling alone, but rather that they were Jesus’ prints, carrying him on His back. Evidently, he did not feel Jesus beneath him, and thus the cry, “Why have you forsaken me?

I would rather be in the presence of a suffering saint like Therese than feasting with world leaders at a State dinner in the White House. I would rather be nursing my sick son or camping in the wilderness with him than exploring the holy lands of Israel without him.

Jesus remarked (and I paraphrase), “If you people know how to give good gifts to your children, imagine how your Father in heaven is even more able and wanting to gift His children.” If you are drawn to arenas of suffering, you are drawn to Christlikeness. If you avoid them in favor of your own comfort, then it is best for you to evaluate what is means to be Christian. Christ did say it is a narrow way and few find it. Fewer understand it enough to look for it. Still fewer want to look for it. It is the way of self-denial. And for narcissistic, self-seeking, self-promoting and self-indulging people who strive to “build self-esteem”, it is a way of suffering. So, of course, they choose “the broad way.”

But as I wrote above, we who love choose this way when our loved ones suffer. We choose to walk that narrow way with them. We want to. We love to. And so does, infinitely more, the Christ. Forsakenness is a feeling. In the heavenly realm, it is never a reality.

John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
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