Suffering Is Everything

(Homily for Good Friday)

Bottom line: This Good Friday we learn that through the suffering of Jesus we receive the greatest blessings - forgiveness and true life. If we join our own sufferings to his, they become means of grace. Illumined by faith, we can say, "suffering is everything."

This evening we observe a solemn commemoration: Good Friday of Our Lord's Passion. I thank you for coming. I recognize you are core members of our Christian community. For that reason, I believe I can speak to you about deeper mysteries - things that might discourage or even scare away those with less involvement. The mystery I speak of this evening is...suffering, the cross.

I'd like to begin with a quote from a twentieth century saint, Elizabeth Leseur.* In a letter to a woman on the verge of losing her eyesight, Elizabeth wrote: "The Stoics say, 'suffering is nothing.' They were wrong. Illuminated by a clearer light we Christians say, 'suffering is everything.'"**

Suffering is everything. We see that in our Good Friday readings. Isaiah speaks about a "servant of the Lord," treated brutally who endures terrible suffering: "crushed for our sins, pierced for our offenses." The Letter to the Hebrews describes the "loud cries and tears" of Jesus. By his suffering, the author says, "Jesus became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him." John's Gospel is more serene. He doesn't need to go into details to tell us about Jesus's suffering. He uses short sentences: "Pilate had him scourged." And, "He handed him over to them to be crucified." He does not need to say more. Everyone in the Roman Empire had seen men tied to whipping posts. If they tried to get away, they still heard the screams. And even small children had seen criminals writhing on wooden crosses.

The people knew what it meant when John said that Jesus was scourged and crucificied. Jesus suffered greatly for us. He did it to take away the penalty for our sins. He had committed no crime. You and I, however, have: not so much a civil crime, but against God. We have an overwhelming debt. That debt would crush us except for one thing: Christ has paid the debt by his blood, his suffering.***

Jesus' suffering has many dimensions. This evening I would to address one of those dimensions. I adverted to it in the quote from Elizabeth Leseur. You and I can have a share in Christ's suffering. St. Paul says that in our own bodies we make up for what is lacking in the suffering of Christ. (Col 1:24) Of course, on one level Jesus' suffering lacks nothing - he is perfect man and perfect God. But as a limited human he did not experience every type of suffering. He could not, for example, experience the unique suffering of a mother. But the Blessed Virgin was at his side. St. John and St. Mary Magdalene also brought their uniqueness to the cross. The same applies to you and me - if we are willing to take our suffering to him.

I feel hesitant to speak about this mystery. In relation to others I have suffered little. At the same time, I know that any joy I experienced required that I first embrace some suffering. When I ran from suffering - which was often - I did not find joy. Instead I found emptiness, resentment and envy. When I accepted some necessary suffering, I began to find peace. I know this applies not only to the vocation of priesthood, but also to marriage and the Christian life in general.

Suffering forms an inevitable part of the Christian vocation. With that in mind, I return to the words of Elizabeth: Suffering is everything. She knew what she was talking about. Her husband, Felix, who was a dedicated medical doctor, but also an unbeliever. He did everything he could to dissuade Elizabeth from her faith. At one point he gave her a copy of Renoir's Life of Jesus - a book that presents Jesus from a purely human point of view. The book had an opposite effect on Elizabeth. It sparked her curiosity and she began read voraciously about Jesus. When she tried to share her faith with Felix, however, he cut her off. Sometimes he mocked her with cruel words. Elizabeth bore his insults quietly and even though she was weakend by hepatitis, she worked diligently. In her early forties, she was diagnosed with cancer and for three years, she suffered horribly.

After her death, her husband discovered Elizabeth's spiritual journal. It moved Felix to his depths and he experienced a profound conversion. He became a Dominican priest and travelled though Europe speaking about his wife's spiritual writings.****

Brothers and sisters, in few moments we will venerate the cross. Jesus invites us to unite our suffering with him. St. Elizabeth Leseur expressed it this way: "Though the divine action even our slightest pains, our least sorrows can reach out to souls both dear and distant and bring them light and peace and holiness."

"The Stoics said, 'suffering is nothing.' They were wrong. Illuminated by a clearer light we Christians say, 'suffering is everything.'"

So, this Good Friday we learn that through the suffering of Jesus we receive the greatest blessings - forgiveness and true life. If we join our own sufferings to his, they become means of grace. Illumined by faith, we can say, "suffering is everything." Amen.

************

*Here is some information on Servant of God, Elizabeth Leseur:

Elisabeth was born in Paris to a wealthy bourgeois French family of Corsican descent. She met Félix Leseur (1861–1950), also from an affluent, Catholic family in 1887. Shortly before they married on July 31, 1889, Elisabeth discovered that Félix was no longer a practicing Catholic.

Though he continued to practice medicine, Dr. Félix Leseur and soon became well known as the editor of an anti-clerical, atheistic newspaper in Paris. Despite his pledge to respect Elisabeth's religious beliefs, as his hatred of the Catholic faith grew he soon began to question, undermine, and ridicule Elisabeth's faith.

In his memoirs, Félix describes how his efforts to "enlighten" Elisabeth nearly succeeded. He had persuaded Elisabeth to read Ernest Renan's Life of Jesus with the expectation that it would finally shatter her last remaining loyalties to Catholicism. Instead, he records that she was "struck by the poverty of substance" on which the arguments were based and was inspired to devote herself to her own religious education.

Soon, their home was filled with two libraries. One, a library devoted to the justifications of atheism and the second to the lives of the saints and the intellectual arguments in favor of Christ and Catholic Church. Félix was frustrated to discover that his challenges to her faith had actually led her to become not only more grounded in her beliefs, but more fervent and determined to become holy.

Félix subsequently published his wife's journal, and in fall of 1919 became a Dominican novice. He was ordained in 1923 and spent much of his remaining twenty seven years publicly speaking about his wife's spiritual writings. He was instrumental in opening the cause for Elisabeth's beatification as a saint.

In reflecting on his wife's life, Félix recalled that she once wrote a book of her younger sister the epigram "Every soul that uplifts itself uplifts the world." Commenting on this, Félix added, "In that profound thought she defined herself."

In the year 1924, Fulton J. Sheen, who would later become an arch-bishop and popular American television and radio figure, made a retreat under the direction of Fr. Leseur. During many hours of spiritual direction, Sheen learned of the life of Elisabeth and the conversion of Félix. Sheen subsequently repeated this conversion story in many of his presentations, in particular in regard to the role that spouses play in the sanctification of each other.

**Quoted by Bert Ghezzi, Voices of the Saints.

***To understand Christ's atonement for our sins presents particular difficulties for people today, partly because of what Pope Benedict calls "the trivialization of evil." In Jesus of Nazareth (Part 1) he writes:

The idea that God allowed the forgiveness of guilt, the healing of man from within, to cost him the death of his Son has come to seem quite alien to us today. That the Lord “has borne our diseases and taken upon himself sorrows,” that “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities,” and that “with his wounds we are healed”[Isaiah 53:4-6] no longer seems possible to us today. Militating against this on one side, is the trivialization of evil in which we take refuge, despite the fact that at the very same time we that the horrors of human history, especially of the most recent human history, as an irrefutable pretext for denying the existence of a good God and slandering his creature man. But the understanding of the great mystery of expiation is also blocked by our individual image of man. We can no longer grasp substitution because we think that every man is ensconced in himself alone. The fact that all individual beings are deeply interwoven and that all are encompassed in turn by the being of the one, the Incarnate Son, is something we are no longer capable of seeing….Cardinal John Henry Newman once said that while God could create the whole world out of nothing with just one word, he could overcome men’s guilt and suffering only by bringing himself into play, by becoming in his Son a sufferer who carried this burden and overcame it through his self-surrender. The overcoming of guilt has a price: We must put our heart – or, better, our whole existence – on the line. And even this act is insufficient; it can become effective only through communion with the One who bore the burdens of us all.

****For contemporary testimony to the meaning of suffering, I warmly recommend The Appalling Strangeness of the Mercy of God: "This book is the story of an amazing woman, Ruth Pakaluk, who converted to Catholicism at Harvard, married her college sweetheart and joyfully welcomed seven children. She became a renowned pro-life leader and brilliant debater, who was struck with breast cancer and died at the young age of forty-one."

Spanish Version

From Archives:

2010 Good Friday Homily: Do Not Waste Your Suffering
2009: He Learned Obedience
2008: According to Your Word
2007: He Took Our Suffering to Himself
2006: The Hour of Divine Mercy
2005: The Conversion of Barabbas
2004: Why Did Jesus Have to Die?
2003: The Host
2002: Testimony of Bishop Dolli
2001: Blood From His Side
2000: Vicarious Suffering
1999: Old Testament Fulfilled
1998: He took our place

Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

Divine Mercy Novena (print ready in English & Spanish)

my bulletin column

SMV Bulletin (be patient - sometimes we have problems uploading)

Parish Picture Album

Reasons Young People Leave Their Faith - Presentation for Monroe Christian Pastors. (For pdf format click here)

Background for presentation on "Reasons Young People Leave Their Faith": High School Course – World Civilization - Section on origins of Christianity. (For pdf format click here)

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