Today’s reading from the Act of the Apostles is almost the exact same reading that we heard this past Sunday. I wrote on Sunday about the line in this reading that speaks of the necessity of suffering for those who follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Today, however, I would like to look at the issue of suffering from a slightly different perspective.
I am sure that we are all familiar with the story of the children of Israel’s “exodus” from Egypt with Moses. The story of their departure from Egypt and the subsequent stories of their experience at the Red Sea and the forty years they spent in the desert have been depicted in several movies and are the basis for the Jewish celebration of Passover every year. It was this event that was the foundation of the Christian celebration of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. We remember that he was celebrating the Passover with this disciples as he made his way to Jerusalem, as he gathered with them in the upper room for the Last Supper (according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke), and as he gave up his life on the cross (according to John).
Yet there is absolutely no physical evidence that the Exodus ever took place. Archaeologists have sifted through the sands of the desert that surrounds Mt. Sinai, through the terrain that borders on the River Jordan, and in the various places that are recorded in the story as we have it from the Scriptures. There is no physical proof that this event ever took place. Like the stories of the empty tomb which form the basis for the faith of Christians, there is no way to prove this story which forms the basis for the Jewish faith. The story depends upon the faith of those who identify themselves as believers.
Both of the stories have something in common; namely, the issue of suffering or, as it is sometimes identified by philosophers, the problem of suffering. How do we answer the skeptics who say that if God is a benevolent and loving Father, why do people have to suffer?
There are those who will say that my answer to the question is too simplistic. That is their right. However, having acquired a number of disabilities of my own and having been a member of CUSA for over thirty years, my answer to the problem of suffering finds its answer in my humanity, in my human nature. Human beings, like all of God’s creatures, are limited, frail, weak, and flawed. Those limitations, that frailty and weakness, those flaws are the source of human suffering.
The story of the Exodus spans a little more than forty years. For the people of that era, forty years was the ordinary span of a human life. The forty years that the Israelites spent in the desert can be looked upon as a metaphor for the span of a human’s lifetime. For forty years, the Israelites sweltered in the heat of the day and froze in the winds of the night. Yet, Scripture tells us, God was with them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. If you are burning up in the middle of the desert under the heat of the noon day sun, what more could one ask that a cloud to shield him from the rays of the sun. If you are shivering in the cold of the desert night, what more could you ask that a pillar of fire to keep you warm. God was with the Israelites in the desert. Yes, they still suffered, but the suffered knowing that God was with them.
As a disciple of Jesus, I look at the presence of suffering in my life in the same way. Jesus is with me in the midst of my difficulties, in the midst of my pain, and will always be with me as someone who has experienced that pain and those difficulties. Just as he suffered for me, I must suffer for and with him.
The mystery or problem of suffering is, for me, a way to identify who God is for me. Just as God raised Jesus from the dead, my future holds the same promise. As St. Paul states so eloquently, “If we have died with him we shall also live with him; if we persevere we shall also reign with him” (2 Timothy 2:11-12).
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator