This year I had the opportunity to take part in our parish’s Lenten speaker series, as the speaker for Holy Week. When it was time for the question and answer portion, one woman raised her hand and asked, “What about people who are experiencing grief during Holy Week?”
Holidays are a time when many people experience grief, as well as depression and anxiety, more intensely. Surrounded by happiness and celebration, it is easy to feel your own pain more acutely. But Holy Week and the Easter season are meant especially for those who are suffering.
This Easter Triduum, I experienced an unusually bad bout of depression. As I was at the Easter Vigil — that most joyous of liturgies — I felt as if I could cry. But as I stood in that dark church, lit only by the single flame of the Paschal Candle, I felt such hope. I fixed my eyes on that light, the light of Christ, knowing that in my own suffering I was experiencing the Paschal mystery more fully than I would have if I had been feeling joyful. In my suffering, I knew that I needed that light of Christ. That single flame was scattering the darkness.
“God is so good! God is good all the time!” I have heard more and more people say that phrase, especially when they are in the midst of suffering. Every time I hear it, I am reminded of Christ on the cross. He didn’t plaster a smile on his face as he suffered, singing how good God is. He said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Because he was fully human and fully divine, he knew that he was not abandoned by the Father.
He spoke those words because we needed to hear them. We needed to know that holy suffering does not mean plastering a smile on your face and acting like everything is alright. Holy suffering means crying out to God in your pain and asking that your suffering be united to the suffering of Christ.
We needed to know that holy suffering does not mean plastering a smile on your face and acting like everything is alright. Holy suffering means crying out to God in your pain and asking that your suffering be united to the suffering of Christ.
I find it reassuring that the Church does not jump directly from the triumph of Palm Sunday to the joy of Easter. Rather, the liturgies of Holy Week invite us to enter very deeply into the mystery of Christ’s suffering. On Holy Thursday, we are invited to pray with Jesus in the garden, kneeling solemnly at the foot of the Altar of Repose. On Good Friday, we are confronted with the emptiness of the tabernacle, the starkness of the bare altar. We kiss the cross, venerating the image of our suffering Beloved. And, of course, we hear the story of the Passion — the long, sorrowful re-telling of the suffering and death of Christ.
It is only after this contemplation of the suffering of Christ that we begin the Easter season. The first liturgy of Easter begins in total darkness, with only the light of the Paschal fire and candle. Normally, when I am sitting in Mass, I find myself periodically gazing at the tabernacle. During the Vigil each year, I am struck by the emptiness of the tabernacle and am forced to gaze at the Paschal candle instead. In gazing at it, and in anticipating Christ’s return to the tabernacle after the Liturgy of the Eucharist, I am filled with a sense of hope. He is coming. He will scatter the darkness and emptiness of this world.
Then, there is the Easter season itself. Throughout the Easter season, we read through the Act of the Apostles at Mass. The Acts of the Apostles is a book filled with joy amid suffering. The early Church was a suffering Church. People were regularly suffering and dying for Christ. Mass was often held in secret, at great personal risk to all who attended. There was no loud praise and worship music or happy fellowship gatherings. There was joy, certainly, but the source of that joy was the risen Christ, and in the opportunity to suffer for Christ.
In the Easter season, we are invited to contemplate the Risen Christ, and what his resurrection means to us. In doing so, we are confronted with the image of Christ’s glorified body — one that still bore the marks of the wounds of the Passion. Christ’s wounds were not healed, but rather glorified. They were still visible.
There is a dignity in suffering. We live in a world that is convinced that suffering is inconvenient and must be avoided at all costs. The ill and elderly are not allowed the opportunity to suffer through a natural death — one that allows them the time and spaced needed to prepare themselves to meet God face to face — but rather are increasingly pressured into euthanasia. Babies diagnosed with terminal or chronic conditions in utero are aborted rather than allowed to live their lives with dignity (even if that means living a life with suffering). And the rest of us, who are all dealing with suffering in various times and various ways, are discouraged from mentioning that anything is less than fine.
But our Catholic faith teaches us something very different. The Catholic teaching on suffering has its origin in Christ. Christ did not gloss over the reality of suffering. He endured it and showed us that all suffering (when united to his own) can lead to sharing in the resurrection. St. Faustina said,
“If the angels were capable of envy, they would envy us for two things: one is the receiving of Holy Communion, and the other is suffering.”
Suffering? Why would the angels be jealous of suffering?
Even if we live to be 100 years old, our life is fleeting in light of eternity. It is only in this life that we can suffer and can unite our suffering to that of Christ’s. As painful as suffering is, it is a unique opportunity that we only possess in this life. If we do embrace the opportunities for suffering — whether small or great — we will not regret it in the life to come.
We don’t know what our glorified bodies will look like, but I think that there is a good chance that our glorified bodies will bear marks that serve as reminders of the suffering that we endured in this life. Christ’s glorified wounds point to this hope — the hope that one day this suffering will pass away, and we will experience the joy of the risen Christ.
In the meantime, the Easter season affords us the opportunity to contemplate the mystery of the risen Christ — and his glorified wounds — with hope.