By Canon Gerry Conroy
Both the first reading and the Gospel today give us an insight into a serious problem facing the early Church when it was speaking to people about Christ: From their insistence that the death and resurrection of the Christ was foretold in the scriptures, we can see that the fact that Jesus had died on the cross was a major obstacle for people accepting that he was the promised Messiah, the Christ many were awaiting. It’s not surprising that it was a problem; it was a problem for the disciples themselves and if we are honest the whole issue of suffering is still a problem for people when it comes to belief in God.
The whole point of the Messiah for the Jews, was that he would free them from their oppressors and give them peace to live their lives in tranquillity and freedom. For many the reason they pray to God is to save them from suffering, from illness, it’s to keep their families safe and prosperous. When a Messiah can’t seem to save himself from suffering, when our prayers don’t seem to help us escape suffering, there are questions we are going to ask, doubts are going to rise in our minds.
While no one wants to have suffering in their lives, one of the questions that comes to me is do we want a world without suffering? That is a strange question and yet if we, fallen frail creatures that we are, lived in a garden of Eden where everything is rosy all the time, I wonder if we, as individuals or as human beings would achieve anything. We would have little incentive to achieve very much because everything would be fine all day every day. We would lapse into a laziness and satisfaction that would be little other than sloth and that would be damaging to our humanity which needs challenges, needs something to do and achieve.
Is the spectre of suffering the only way to motivate us to do something? I don’t know the answer to that, but perhaps the more important question is how we react to the suffering in our lives. This pandemic has challenged our humanity, it has challenged just about everything we believe in, human and divine. It challenges our relationships, our government, our social and our economic structures, but paradoxically it has also been an experience that has helped many review their priorities in life, their relationships, their work-life balance. It hasn’t all been negative.
Suffering doesn’t need to be the curse we sometimes experience it to be. We can moan at it, but we can also use it to our advantage. It doesn’t have to be the great death of belief that it has become for many, it can be a means of bringing to perfection within us our humanity, of bringing God’s love to perfection within us as it did for Christ on the cross. There are no shortcuts on that journey, just as there have been no shortcuts in this pandemic, no shortcuts in life. It’s not easy, you don’t get special treatment on that score just because you believe. But you do get grace and hope, you get to know where the journey is headed and that gives you a strength and purpose others don’t have. As St John said, this journey is about God’s love coming to perfection in us and that is where we find the fullness of our humanity.
Canon Conroy is parish priest of St Patrick’s, Dumbarton