One of the things we say when referring to Jesus, is that we call Him our Redeemer. We do this because Jesus died on the cross to pay the debt that came to be on account of our sin. By His death and resurrection, He won us freedom from the bondage that comes about through sin. The Cross of Christ restores us to that original dignity we had before the Fall in the Garden of Eden. Jesus paid that price fully. As He hung on the Cross, He said, “It is finished” – referring to the accomplishment of the plan that the Father carried out through Him to save and redeem us.
However, the amazing thing is that in His love for us, God has devised a way for us to participate in the redemptive sacrifice of Christ.
We sometimes hear the expression to ‘offer things up’. Perhaps when we’re having a bad day or we’re ill, we’re told to ‘offer it up’. There is a point to that. When we unite any hardships or sorrows in our lives with Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross, our suffering can have meaning and purpose.
In his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul wrote: “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His Body, that is, the Church” (Col 1:24). And in this line, we find the meaning and purpose that suffering can have. We are all members of the Body of Christ, with Jesus as its Head. Jesus has in some way united Himself with us, in a way that we who are members of His Body, are offered the possibility of being made partners in His redemptive act (CCC 618).
When St. Paul said that his sufferings completed what was ‘lacking’ in Jesus’ afflictions, that did not mean that there was anything ‘missing’ in Jesus’ sacrificial death. Rather, as Pope St. John Paul II put it, Christ raised human suffering to the level of redemption. Jesus calls us to follow His example and take up our cross, as through any suffering we endure in union with Christ, we can play a role in the redemption of our brothers and sisters, by giving our afflictions a redemptive character. While Christ achieved redemption completely, He did not bring it to a close, but it remains open always to sufferings that any of us may endure out of love for someone else.
In a nutshell, that is what the Church means by redemptive suffering. Even though Jesus accomplished the redemption of humanity completely through His suffering, the redemptive act lives on and develops through His Body, the Church. From this perspective, just as the Church completes the redemptive work of Christ, every human hardship that is borne in loving union with Christ, completes the suffering of Christ. (For more, read Pope St. John Paul II’s letter Salvifici Doloris).
This doesn’t mean we ought to create or look for ‘crosses’ or difficulties in our lives (there are enough of those in each of our lives already!). But, if life throws us lemons that we can’t turn to lemonade, we can change our approach to them. Instead of seeing these as burdens, we can take them as opportunities to graciously accept the crosses God has willed in our lives and carry them for the benefit of ourselves and others. This isn’t easy, of course (I have to confess that I’m still working on making this a real part of my everyday life). Yet, it’s precisely those times of hardship, when we feel weighed down by sorrows or difficulties in life that can be made most fruitful if we just offer them up to God.
Suffering can also take on the character of being a prayer. How this works, is that when we experience any difficulties in our lives, we can choose to offer these up for someone else or for some intention that could use God’s grace. For example, if you’re having a tough time at work, and you can’t do anything to change it, accept that cross as silently and selflessly as you can for an intention: maybe for a friend’s troubled marriage, or for someone who is going through a difficult illness, or troubles at work, or for anyone you know who could use some spiritual help in that moment. Whatever pain or hardship we undergo can be offered up to God in union with Christ’s suffering to give it a redemptive quality.
Redemptive suffering helps us to grow in virtue and holiness because we learn to deny ourselves for the sake of someone else. By making it a habit in our lives to embrace the crosses in our lives, we grow in patience, humility, kindness, generosity and many other virtues, the biggest one of all being charity.
Just to be clear, we can’t offer up someone else’s sufferings. We can only offer up our own. However, we can and should teach those around us about the beauty and the importance of offering up their difficulties through redemptive suffering. This holds true especially for people with serious illnesses or other prolonged challenging life situations.
As I’m sure we’ll all agree, each day we are given opportunities to ‘offer it up’ for ourselves or for others. Suffering is a part of this world. There isn’t an easy answer to explain why human suffering exists. However, by embracing it in union with Christ, we can transform it, and in a mysterious way known only to God, we can join in the sacrifice of Christ in a very small way. As Fr.Mike Schmitz describes it, we get to participate in a sliver of the Cross. And that is phenomenal, because that means we get to participate in the Cross – the sacrifice that brings about the salvation and redemption of the whole world.
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