Defined by suffering

by Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

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If you have watched reruns of the TV series "M*A*S*H," you might remember the scenes where the medical staff performs triage each time a helicopter arrives with more wounded from the Korean War. After they do a quick visual evaluation, the staff assesses each patient's physical condition and assigns their treatment to the medical professional best suited to help them.

Twenty-fourth Sunday in
Ordinary Time
Isaiah 50:5-9a
Psalm 116
James 2:14-18
Mark 8:27-35

Cel-Sept132015.jpgOther medical programs like "ER" and "House, M.D." use a similar process when patients present themselves in the emergency room. Doctors can be heard saying, "Broken leg in Room 3" or "Third-degree burns, Curtain 2" or "Head trauma in intensive care."

In this process of evaluation, television reflects the real-life activity of hospital emergency rooms, trauma centers and even the battlefield. Those in need of care are identified by their wounds or sicknesses. Only when their suffering is addressed and attended can someone see beyond their struggle to discover who they really are.

Today's first reading and Gospel feature figures who were willingly defined by suffering, for it was through their suffering that they were able to show their true face to the world. Deutero-Isaiah never names the servant he has described in four poignant songs. However, the prophet has described in vivid detail the suffering he endured for the sake of his ministry.

In order to speak a word to rouse his contemporaries, he endured their rejection; to establish justice for the nations, he let himself be beaten and mocked. To be the light of the nations and the liberator of the prisoners, he accepted being spat upon. To bring healing and wholeness to the blind, the deaf and the lame, he did not shield himself but gave himself over to the wrath of those he had come to save.

This Isaian servant is fully identified in the person and through the mission of Jesus. The servant provides the template for us to understand the salvific suffering of the one whom Peter identified as the Christ. No sooner did Peter speak that noble declaration than Jesus began to define himself as Christ in terms of suffering. He would be rejected, would suffer greatly and be killed.

Unaware, as yet, of the true nature of Jesus' identity, Peter tried to set aside the unthinkable notion of a suffering Christ. Yet not only did Jesus persist in defining his salvific service in terms of suffering, he also insisted that his followers should be identified in the same way.

Through their suffering for being his disciples, Jesus' followers become who they truly are -- living and breathing reflections of him in the world. Disciples do not choose suffering for suffering's sake; rather, they accept suffering because of the unity with Jesus that suffering creates and the redemption it helps to effect.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin often affirmed that Christianity plays an irreplaceable role with its astonishing revelation that suffering, if rightly embraced, can be transformed into an expression of love and a principle of action (Oeuvres de Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Seuil, 1955-1965). Suffering remains an adversary, yet at the same time it can prove to be the disciple's advocate, uprooting selfishness and enabling one to become completely centered on Christ, on God.

But what is this suffering that is ours to embrace? What is the suffering that will allow us to become our truest and most Christian selves?

One explanation comes from an unexpected source. Sigmund Freud once said that we are threatened with suffering from three directions: from our own body, which is doomed to decay and dissolution and cannot even do that without sending out pain and anxiety as warning signals; from the external world, which may rage against us with overwhelming and merciless forces of destruction; and finally from our relationships with other people. This latter suffering is perhaps more painful than any other, said Freud (Civilization and Its Discontents, W.W. Norton and Co., 1989).

Jesus, who immersed himself completely in the human condition, experienced every sort and degree of suffering in order to translate that experience into an eloquent expression of love. That suffering identified him as the Christ, the Savior. Our suffering, when united to his, identifies us as his own.

[Patricia Sánchez holds a master's degree in literature and religion of the Bible from a joint degree program at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York.]


A version of this story appeared in the Aug 28-Sept 10, 2015 print issue under the headline: Defined by suffering.

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