The Thorny Problem of Human Suffering

The Thorny Problem of Human Suffering

Our readings for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time tackle the thorny problem of human suffering, as well as the suffering of the just and of innocent people, including children. I would like to reflect on this troubling problem in the context of Jesus as our eternal High Priest.

In St. Paul’s letter to the Romans there is the following unconventional presentation of the ministerial priesthood.

…to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in performing the priestly service of the Gospel of God, so that the offering up of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:16)

This unusual, but divinely revealed definition proves that Paul shares in the ministerial priesthood of Jesus, the final and universal High Priest, primarily by preaching the Good News (Gospel) to the Gentiles, including the Romans.

It is commonly assumed that priests of all times and of all religions are mainly about offering sacrifices acceptable to their respective deities on behalf of their people. Hence, the inevitable question must be: why would St. Paul single out “the preaching of the Gospel” as his primary task as a priest? Why not simply write that he has a share in the priesthood of Christ to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Cross, the Eucharist, and to administer the Sacraments?

The answer might be found in our Gospel passage (Mark 1:29-39). Naturally, St. Paul too, patterns his priesthood, his priestly duties after the model of Jesus Christ. Looking at this gospel passage more closely, we notice that Jesus began his priestly ministry by teaching in the synagogues of Galilee. And the Good News that he taught is about the Kingdom of God being brought about by his presence amid the suffering, the brokenness, the diseases, the darkness, the sins, and the “demons” afflicting God’s people. Therefore, it can be said that, in Jesus, God is now more than simply aware of our pain.  By divine design, in Jesus’ flesh it is impossible to separate his tears from our tears, his pain from our pain, his sufferings from our sufferings and his longings from our longings.

The uniqueness of the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity manifests the incredible extent of how much our God differs from all other gods. Accordingly, we shall explore also how the priestly ministry of St. Paul, of all bishops and priests of the New Testament differs from any other conventional priesthood.

Since the beginning of his public ministry, with the curing of Simon’s mother-in- law, and in any age thereafter, as part of his priestly ministry, Jesus touches our ailing flesh and restores it to health. As part of his priestly ministry, Jesus reveals how pain and sufferings should be endured and dealt with in a communal context. Notice how “they immediately told him about her” (Mark 1:30) and how relief from pain and sufferings should not be an end in itself but for the good of the community: “Then, the fever left her and she waited on them.” (Mark 1:31)

Furthermore, as part of his priestly ministry, Jesus takes upon himself the awful burden of all our miseries and turns them into prayer. He offers to the Father our pain and suffering as an inseparable, integral part of his most acceptable Sacrifice of praise to the Father (Eucharist). After having dealt with our miseries…rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed. (Mark 1:35)

Once Jesus shoulders our pain and suffering and fills our hearts with the comfort of his teaching, he doesn’t forget how crucial it is to exercise that part of his priestly ministry in every village and town.

“Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also.” (Mark 1:38)

As a sharer in the priestly ministry of Christ, St. Paul feels the very same urgency and need: “for an obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it!” (1 Corinthians 9:16) I like to think that, not only St. Paul, but all bishops and priests should feel this obligation to exercise their priestly ministry in the proper order: first by preaching God’s Word because, in Jesus, now, God is too painfully aware of our pain; he shares in our sufferings and he does something most caring and most loving about it.

That is precisely the first part of any Eucharistic Celebration, of the Holy Sacrifice of the Cross. The Table of God’s Word reminds us that, in His Son Jesus, he is immersed in our pain; that he carries forever the wounds afflicting our flesh; and that his words provide much comfort as well as many reasons for endurance and hope. The few drops of water that the priest adds to the wine when he prepares the gifts at the altar symbolize our good works, our willingness to serve each other, our sincere and generous loving, but also all the pain that is part and parcel of our daily life. So, an aspect of my priestly ministry is the one of pointing out that our pain is as precious to the Father as is the one of His Son Jesus. Indeed, in verse 9 of Psalm 56, God tells us that He has a flask in which He collects all our tears and a book in which He records all our nervous wanderings and sighs.

Hence, inspired by the Holy Spirit, St. Paul is correct in stressing that his primary duty, as a sharer in the priesthood of Christ, it is to teach; it is to feed words of comfort, reassurance and hope to his people in their sufferings and in any moment of darkness.

Once fed at the Table of the Body and Blood of Christ we would not be inspired to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to the Father, in union with Christ, and place ourselves joyfully at the service of the community (as Simon’s mother-in-law did) unless, first, our ills of all kinds are addressed and healed, or at least endured with hope in union with Christ at the Table of God’s Word. 

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Written by
Fr Dino Vanin