Redemptive Suffering in the Early Church

In Part One of our series we looked at the Epistle of James’s revolutionary teaching on the value of suffering upon our souls, and in Part 2 we saw how St. Paul expands upon this insight to show how our sufferings also benefit the souls of others. In this final article we want to explore these apostolic insights were faithfully communicated to the next generation of Christians. 

Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch, Syria, wrote of suffering and martyrdom during his transport to Rome, on his way to die in the Colosseum (AD 110). Many of Ignatius’s statements echo Paul’s teaching on suffering. In Ignatius’s Epistle to the Ephesians he wrote, “My spirit is in sacrificial service for the cross, which is a scandal to unbelievers [1 Cor 1:18]”; and he told the Magnesians, “If we do not willingly embrace dying for his passion, neither is his life in us [Rom 8:17].” When Ignatius wrote to the Christians in Rome, he asked that they not attempt to intervene on his behalf: “Permit me to be an imitator of the sufferings of my God. If anyone possesses [Christ] in himself, let him consider what I want and let him suffer with me.” Like Paul, he saw his life being poured out as a “libation,” a drink offering (Phil 2:17; 2 Tim 4:6). He linked his martyrdom to the offering of Christ, re-presented to the Father in the Church’s Eucharist: “Permit me to be food for the beasts, through them I will reach God. I am the wheat of God and I compete through beasts’ teeth to be found the pure bread of Christ.”

Ignatius’s sacrifice consisted of more than the act of martyrdom. It had already begun in the mistreatment he suffered at the hands of his Roman captors (Rom 5:1). Kenneth Howell, in his masterful translation and commentary on Ignatius’s epistles, highlights the bishop’s use of antipsuchon, or “substitute soul.” Appropriating Paul’s words to the Colossians, Ignatius knew that his suffering benefitted more souls than just his own. He told the Smyrneans: “My spirit and my bonds are your substitute soul”; and their bishop Polycarp, “I and my bonds that you love are your substitute soul in every way.” To the Trallians he wrote, “My spirit makes you pure not only now but also when I attain to God.” He expounded upon Paul’s theology of the mystical body in his letter to the Philadelphians, “My brothers, I am being completely poured out for love of you and with exceeding joy I try to make you secure. It is really not I but Jesus Christ who does so. In him, as a prisoner I am all the more afraid because I am still incomplete. However, your prayer will make me complete for God so that I may obtain a share in the lot where I received mercy.” Ignatius made it clear that it was Christ who accomplished all of this in his body. Union with Christ would make the Philadelphians’ prayer for Ignatius efficacious and his perseverance in suffering meritorious for them.

The early Church knew that God’s providence extended to every area of their lives. The Didache, or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (c. AD 100), directed readers to “accept as blessings the casualties that befall you, assured that nothing happens without God.” Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258) taught that God made use of calamity to correct the erring; but he also recognized some sufferings as no more than the consequence of life in a fallen world: “[W]e are all, good and evil, contained in one household. Whatever happens within the house we suffer with equal fate, until, when the end of the temporal life shall be attained, we shall be distributed among the homes either of eternal death or immortality.” It is our union with Christ that injects meaning and purpose into these common sufferings.

The Church’s meditation upon suffering has continued down through the centuries. In the thirteenth century, for instance, St. Anthony of Padua sagely remarked, “God sends us afflictions for various reasons: First, to increase our merit; second, to preserve in us the grace of God; third, to punish us for our sins; and fourth, to show forth his glory and his other attributes.” In our own time, Pope St. John Paul II reflected deeply upon the subject in his apostolic letter Savifici Doloris, or On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering. John Paul was intimately acquainted with suffering. His mother died when he was only eight years old, and his father and brother before he turned twenty-one. He lived decades of his life under Nazi and Soviet occupation. He survived an assassin’s bullet and endured the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease. John Paul descended into some of the darkest experiential places known to man, only to discover that he was not alone; the Crucified was there, awaiting him: 

Christ does not explain in the abstract the reason for suffering, but before all else he says: “Follow me! Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering! Through my cross.” Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting himself to the cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed before him. He does not discover this meaning at his own human level, but at the level of the sufferings of Christ. At the same time, however, from this level of Christ the salvific meaning of suffering descends to man’s level and becomes, in a sense, the individual’s personal response. It is then that man finds in his suffering interior peace and even spiritual joy.

This is the wisdom of the Cross (1 Cor 1:23–24)—the rich fruit borne of the Epistle of James’s admonition to “count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials” (1:2). The Church of the twenty-first century needs to re-appropriate this wisdom. Praise be to God, who gives generously to all who ask (James 1:5).

This article was adapted from Shane Kapler’s James: Jewish Roots, Catholic Fruits (Angelico Press, 2021).

Photo by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash

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