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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anthony Lilles

Holy Week, Prayer and Suffering

Holy Week helps us focus on the salvific suffering of Christ. The events of this week spiral towards the Cross where human misery is enveloped in Divine Mercy. In this week we recount how the politically and culturally powerful could not thwart the plan of God to raise up humanity above everything that threatens its true dignity. Before the One Crucified by love, Holy Week opens the mystery of suffering to the threshold of glory. Although aspirations for something greater than this world live in the hearts of men, suffering and death, guilt and shame burden human existence. We are not at home with this state of affairs even when it is obvious that we have brought so much of it on ourselves. We know things ought to be different, but there is no easy answer to this riddle. Humanity struggles under a kind of doom where everything that is good, beautiful and true about our lives finds itself subject to futility. Here, we constantly betray ourselves even in the best of times, but when there is great hardship, we find ourselves on the edge of falling apart in despair. We are not the only ones who are concerned about our plight. Deep in the heart of God there is a judgment about human evil that we can only know through the gift of the Holy Spirit. This knowledge pierces to the heart and makes us rethink the way we live. When we know our sins in light of this judgment we also know there is Another who knows our true dignity and He has chosen not to be a spectator to our plight. Instead, He has implicated Himself in it. Holy Week is about God's answer to our human dilemma. On the Cross, God and man become implicated in each other's plight. In mystery of Love crucified the heartache God suffers for humanity and the misery men suffer without God are bound to each other. By this saving work, suffering and death have been endowed with new meaning. This means when we face discouraging circumstances our faith opens us to his transforming power—if we trust in Him. We have every reason to trust! The power of God's love, is greater than all the evil that looms over our existence, including even the evil produced by our own failures. Before this Divine Power, any sense of hopelessness however strongly felt is only a feeling, a feeling to be resisted even if it must sometimes be suffered. By faith, Christ has suffered in such a way that we can join all our afflictions with his in a mysterious manner. When we trust Him, when we choose to believe in love even when we feel like we cannot love any more, when we offer our misery to Him in an act of faith, this sacrifice of love unleashes God's power in the world. This has practical implications for those struggling under the difficult burden of hardship. No matter our circumstances, if we look to Christ, we behold an answer to the difficult riddle of human suffering and death. In his encyclical on Human Suffering, Blessed John Paul the Great explains to us how to find joy in the midst of illness and hardship. In his vision of our faith, the feeling of uselessness and the sense that one is a burden to others, discouraging though this may be, these difficult moments can actually become through faith in Christ a source of joy. This is because when we surrender this feeling to God in prayer, we discover "the salvific meaning of suffering in union with Christ."

Saint Paul speaks of such joy in the Letter to the Colossians: "I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake"(88). A source of joy is found in the overcoming of the sense of the uselessness of suffering, a feeling that is sometimes very strongly rooted in human suffering. This feeling not only consumes the person interiorly, but seems to make him a burden to others. The person feels condemned to receive help and assistance from others, and at the same time seems useless to himself. The discovery of the salvific meaning of suffering in union with Christ transforms this depressing feeling. Faith in sharing in the suffering of Christ brings with it the interior certainty that the suffering person "completes what is lacking in Christ's afflictions"; the certainty that in the spiritual dimension of the work of Redemption he is serving, like Christ, the salvation of his brothers and sisters. Therefore he is carrying out an irreplaceable service. In the Body of Christ, which is ceaselessly born of the Cross of the Redeemer, it is precisely suffering permeated by the spirit of Christ's sacrifice that is the irreplaceable mediator and author of the good things which are indispensable for the world's salvation. It is suffering, more than anything else, which clears the way for the grace which transforms human souls. Suffering, more than anything else, makes present in the history of humanity the powers of the Redemption. In that "cosmic" struggle between the spiritual powers of good and evil, spoken of in the Letter to the Ephesians(89), human sufferings, united to the redemptive suffering of Christ, constitute a special support for the powers of good, and open the way to the victory of these salvific powers. - The Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris #27.

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