On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering
Apostolic Letter of Pope John Paul II
February 11, 1984.
1 1. Declaring the power of salvific suffering, the apostle Paul says: «In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church" (1).
These words seem to be found at the end of the long road that winds through the suffering which forms part of the history of man and which is illuminated by the word of God. These words have as it were the value of a final discovery, which is accompanied by joy. For this reason St. Paul writes: "Now I rejoice in my suffering for your sake" (2). The joy comes from the discovery of the meaning of suffering, and this discovery, even if it is most personally shared in by Paul of Tarsus who wrote these words, is at the same time valid for others. The apostle shares his own discovery and rejoices in it because of all those whom it can help -- just as it helped him -- to understand the salvific meaning of suffering.
1. Col 1,24
2 2. The theme of suffering -- precisely under the aspect of this salvific meaning -- seems to fit profoundly into the context of the holy year of the redemption as an extraordinary jubilee of the church. And this circumstance too clearly favors the attention it deserves during this period. Independently of this fact, it is a universal theme that accompanies man at every point on earth: In a certain sense it coexists with him in the world and thus demands to be constantly reconsidered. Even though Paul, in the Letter to the Romans, wrote that "the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now" (3) , even though man knows and is close to the sufferings of the animal world, nevertheless what we express by the word "suffering" seems to be particularly essential to the nature of man. It is as deep as man himself, precisely because it manifests in its own way that depth which is proper to man and in its own way surpasses it. Suffering seems to belong to man's transcendence: It is one of those points in which man is in a certain sense "destined" to go beyond himself, and he is called to this in a mysterious way.
3. Rm 8,22
3 3. The theme of suffering in a special way demands to be faced in the context of the holy year of the redemption and this is so, in the first place, because the redemption was accomplished through the cross of Christ, that is, through his suffering. And at the same time, during the holy year of the redemption we recall the truth expressed in the encyclical Redemptor Hominis (Redeemer of Man): In Christ «every man becomes the way for the church" (4). It can be said that man in a special fashion becomes the way for the church when suffering enters his life. This happens, as we know, at different moments in life, it takes place in different ways, it assumes different dimensions; nevertheless, in whatever form, suffering seems to be, and is, almost inseparable from man's earthly existence.
Assuming then that throughout his earthly life man walks in one manner or another on the long path of suffering, it is precisely on this path that the church at all times -- and perhaps especially during the holy year of the redemption -- should meet man. Born of the mystery of the redemption in the cross of Christ, the church has to try to meet man in a special way on the path of his suffering. In this meeting man "becomes the way for the church," and this way is one of the most important ones.
4. Cf. John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis, nos. RH 14 RH 18 RH 22 AAS 71 (1979), 284f, 304, 320, 323.
4 4. This is the origin also of the present reflection, precisely in the year of the redemption: a meditation on suffering. Human suffering evokes compassion; it also evokes respect and in its own way it intimidates. For in suffering is contained the greatness of a specific mystery. This special respect for every form of human suffering must be set at the beginning of what will be expressed here later by the deepest need of the heart and also by the deep imperative of faith. About the theme of suffering these two reasons seem to draw particularly close to each other and to become one: The need of the heart commands us to overcome fear, and the imperative of faith -- formulated, for example in the words of St. Paul quoted at the beginning -- provides the content, in the name of which and by virtue of which we dare to touch what appears in every man so intangible: For man, in his suffering, remains an intangible mystery.
5 5. Even though in its subjective dimension, as a personal fact contained within man's concrete and unrepeatable interior, suffering seems almost inexpressible and not transferable, perhaps at the same time nothing else requires as much as does suffering, in its «objective reality," to be dealt with, meditated upon and conceived as an explicit problem; and that therefore basic questions be asked about it and the answers sought. It is evident that it is not a question here merely of giving a description of suffering. There are other criteria which go beyond the sphere of description and which we must introduce when we wish to penetrate the world of human suffering.
Medicine, as the science and also the art of healing, discovers in the vast field of human sufferings the best known area, the one identified with greater precision and relatively more counterbalanced by the methods of "reaction" (that is, the methods of therapy). Nonetheless, this is only one area. The field of human suffering is much wider, more varied and multidimensional. Man suffers in different ways, ways not always considered by medicine, not even in its most advanced specializations. Suffering is something which is still wider than sickness, more complex and at the same time still more deeply rooted in humanity itself. A certain idea of this problem comes to us from the distinction between physical suffering and moral suffering. This distinction is based upon the double dimension of the human being and indicates the bodily and spiritual element as the immediate or direct subject of suffering. Insofar as the words «suffering" and "pain" can, up to a certain degree, be used as synonyms, physical suffering is present when "the body is hurting" in some way, whereas moral suffering is "pain of the soul." In fact, it is a question of pain of a spiritual nature and not only of the «psychological" dimension of pain which accompanies both moral and physical suffering. The vastness and many forms of moral suffering are certainly no less in number than the forms of physical suffering. But at the same time, moral suffering seems as it were less identified and less reachable by therapy.
6 6. Sacred scripture is a great book about suffering. Let us quote from the books of the Old Testament a few examples of situations which bear the signs of suffering and above all moral suffering: the danger of death (5) , the death of one's own children (6) and especially the death of the firstborn and only son (7) ; and then too: the lack of offspring (8) , nostalgia for the homeland (9) , persecution and hostility of the environment (10) , mockery and scorn of the one who suffers (11) , loneliness and abandonment (12) ; and again: the remorse of conscience (13) , the difficulty of understanding why the wicked prosper and the just suffer (14) , the unfaithfulness and ingratitude of friends and neighbors (15) ; and finally: the misfortunes of one's own nation (16) .
In treating the human person as a psychological and physical «whole," the Old Testament often links "moral" sufferings with the pain of specific parts of the body: the bones (17) , kidneys (18) , liver (19) , viscera (20) , heart (21) . In fact one cannot deny that moral sufferings have a "physical" or somatic element, and that they are often reflected in the state of the entire organism.
5. As Hezekiah
6. As Hagar feared (cf Gn 15-16), as Jacob imagined (cf. Gn 37,33-35), as David experienced (cf. 2S 19,1).
7. As Anna, the mother of Tobias, feared (cf. Tb 10,1-7); cf. also Jr 6,26 Am 8-10 Za 12,10.
8. Such was the trial of Abraham (cf. Gn 15,2), of Rachel (cf. Gn 30,1) or of Anna, the mother of Samuel (cf. 1S 1,6-10).
9. Such was the lament of the exiles in Babylon (cf. Ps 137 ).
10. Suffered, for example by the psalmist (cf. Ps 22,17-21 ) or by Jeremiah (Cf. Jr 18,18).
11. This was a trial for Job (cf. Jb 18-19 Jb 30,1-9), for some psalmists (cf. Ps 22,7-9 ); Ps 42,11 ; Ps 44,16-17 ), for Jeremiah (cf. Jr 20,7), for the suffering servant (cf. Is 53,3).
12. Which certain psalmists had to suffer again (cf. Ps 22,2-3 ); Ps 31,13 ); Ps 38,12 (37); Ps 88,9-19 (87), Jeremiah (cf. Jr 15,17) or the suffering servant (cf. Is 53,3).
13. Of the psalmist (cf. Ps 51,5 (50), or the witnesses of the sufferings of the servant (cf. Is 53,3-6), of the prophet Zechariah (cf. Za 12,10).
14. This was strongly felt by the psalmist (cf. Ps 73,3-14 (72) and Qoheleth (cf. Qo 4,1-3).
15. This was a suffering for Job (cf. Jb 10,19), for certain psalmists (cf. Ps 41,10 (40); Ps 55,13-15 (54), for Jeremiah (cf. Jr 20,10), while Sirach meditated on this misery (cf. Si 37,1-6).
16. Besides numerous passages of Lamentations, cf. the laments of the psalmists (cf. Ps 44,10-17 (43); Ps 77,11 (76); Ps 89,51 (88)) or of the prophets (cf. Is 22,4 Jr 4,8 Jr 13,17 Jr 14,17-18 Ez 9,8 Ez 21,11-12); also cf. the prayers of Azariah (cf. Da 3,31-40) and of Daniel (cf. Da 9,16-19).
17. For example Is 38,13 Jr 23,9 Ps 31,10-11 (30); Ps 42,10-11 (41).
18. For example Ps 73,21 (72); Jb 16,13 Lm 3,13.
19. For example Lm 2,11.
20. For example Is 16,11 Jr 4,19 Jb 30,27 Lm 1,20.
21. For example 1S 1,8 Jr 4,19 Jr 8,18 Lm 1,20-22 Ps 38,9-11 (37).
7 7. As we see from the examples quoted, we find in sacred scripture an extensive list of variously painful situations for man. This varied list certainly does not exhaust all that has been said and constantly repeated on the theme of suffering by the book of the history of man (this is rather an "unwritten book") and even more by the book of the history of humanity, read through the history of every human individual.
It can be said that man suffers whenever he experiences any kind of evil. In the vocabulary of the Old Testament, suffering and evil are identified with each other. In fact, that vocabulary did not have a specific word to indicate "suffering." Thus it defined as "evil" everything that was suffering (22) . Only the Greek language, and together with it the New Testament (and the Greek translation of the Old Testament), use the verb pascho ("I am affected by ..., I experience a feeling, I suffer"); and thanks to this verb, suffering is no longer directly identifiable with (objective) evil, but expresses a situation in which man experiences evil and in doing so becomes the subject of suffering. Suffering has indeed both a subjective and a passive character (patior). Even when man brings suffering on himself, when he is its cause, this suffering remains something passive in its metaphysical essence.
This does not however mean that suffering in the psychological sense is not marked by a specific "activity." This is in fact that multiple and subjectively differentiated "activity" of pain, sadness, disappointment, discouragement or even despair, according to the the intensity of the suffering subject and his or her specific sensitivity. In the midst of what constitutes the psychological form of suffering there is always an experience of evil, which causes the individual to suffer.
Thus the reality of suffering prompts the question about the essence of evil: What is evil?
This question seems in a certain sense inseparable from the theme of suffering. The Christian response to it is different, for example, from the one given by certain cultural and religious traditions which hold that existence is an evil from which one needs to be liberated. Christianity proclaims the essential good of existence and the good of that which exists, acknowledges the goodness of Creator and proclaims the good of creatures. Man suffers on account of evil, which is a certain lack, limitation or distortion of good. We could say that man suffers because of a good in which he does not share, from which in a certain sense he is cut off or of which he has deprived himself. He particularly suffers when he "ought" -- in the normal order of things -- to have a share in this good and does not have it.
Thus, in the Christian view, the reality of suffering is explained through evil, which always in some way refers to a good.
22. In this regard it is useful to remember that the Hebrew root r" designates in a comprehensive way what is evil, as opposed to what is good (tob), without distinguishing between the physical, psychological and ethical sense. The root is found in the substantive form ra' and ra'a indicating indifferently evil in itself, or the evil action or the individual who does it. In the verbal forms, besides the simple one (qal) variously designating "being evil," there are the reflexive-passive form (niphal) "to endure evil," "to be affected by evil" and the causative form (hiphil) "to do evil," "to inflict evil" on someone. Since the Hebrew lacks a true equivalent to the Greek pascho, "I suffer," this verb too occurs rarely in the Septuagint translation.
8 8. In itself human suffering constitutes as it were a specific «world" which exists together with man, which appears in him and passes, and sometimes does not pass, but which consolidates itself and becomes deeply rooted in him. This world of suffering, divided into many, very many subjects, exists as it were "in dispersion." Every individual, through personal suffering, constitutes not only a small part of that "world," but at the same time that "world" is present in him as a finite and unrepeatable entity. Parallel with this, however, is the interhuman and social dimension. The world of suffering possesses as it were its own solidarity. People who suffer become similar to one another through the analogy of their situation, the trial of their destiny or through their need for understanding and care, and perhaps above all through the persistent question of the meaning of suffering. Thus, although the world of suffering exists «in dispersion," at the same time it contains within itself a singular challenge to communion and solidarity. We shall also try to follow this appeal in the present reflection.
Considering the world of suffering in its personal and at the same time collective meaning, one cannot fail to notice the fact that this world, at some periods of time and in some eras of human existence, as it were becomes particularly concentrated. This happens for example, in cases of natural disasters, epidemics, catastrophes, upheavals and various social scourges: One thinks, for example, of a bad harvest and connected with it -- or with various other causes -- the scourge of famine.
One thinks, finally, of war. I speak of this in a particular way. I speak of the last two world wars, the second of which brought with it a much greater harvest of death and a much heavier burden with it -- as though in proportion to the mistakes and transgressions of our contemporary civilization -- such a horrible threat of nuclear war that we cannot think of this period except in terms of an incomparable accumulation of sufferings, even to the possible self-destruction of humanity. In this way that the world of suffering which, in brief, has its subject in each human being seems in our age to be transformed -- perhaps more than at any other moment -- into a special "world": the world which as never before has been transformed by progress through man's work, and, at the same time, is as never before in danger because of man's mistakes and offenses.
9 9. Within each form of suffering endured by man and at the same time at the basis of the whole world of suffering, there inevitably arises the question: why? It is a question about the cause, the reason and, equally about the purpose of suffering and, in brief, a question about its meaning. Not only does it accompany human suffering, but it seems even to determine its human content, what makes suffering precisely human suffering.
It is obvious that pain, especially physical pain, is widespread in the animal world. But only the suffering human being knows that he is suffering and wonders why; and he suffers in a humanly speaking still deeper way if he does not find a satisfactory answer. This is a difficult question, just as is a question closely akin to it, the question of evil? Why does evil exist? Why is there evil in the world? When we put the question in this way, we are always, at least to a certain extent, asking a question about suffering too.
Both questions are difficult when an individual puts them to another individual, when people put them to other people, as also when man puts them to God. For man does not put this question to the world even though it is from the world that suffering often comes to him, but he puts it to God as the Creator and Lord of the world. And it is well-known that concerning this question there not only arise many frustrations and conflicts in the relations of man with God, but it also happens that people reach the point of actually denying God. For, whereas the existence of the world opens as it were the eyes of the human soul to the existence of God, to his wisdom, power and greatness, evil and suffering seem to obscure this image, sometimes in a radical way, especially in the daily drama of so many cases of undeserved suffering and of so many faults without proper punishment. So this circumstance shows -- perhaps more than any other -- the importance of the question of the meaning of suffering: it also shows how much care must be taken both in dealing with the question itself and with all possible answers to it.
10 10. Man can put this question to God with all the emotion of his heart and with his mind full of dismay and anxiety; and God expects the question and listens to it, as we see in the revelation of the Old Testament. In the Book of Job the question has found its most vivid expression.
The story of this just man, who without any fault of his own is tried by innumerable sufferings, is well-known. He loses his possessions, his sons and daughters, and finally he himself is afflicted by a grave sickness. In this horrible situation three old acquaintances come to his house, and each one in his own way tries to convince him that since he has been struck down by such varied and terrible sufferings, he must have done something seriously wrong. For suffering -- they say -- always strikes a man as punishment for a crime; it is sent by the absolutely just God and finds its reason in the order of justice. It can be said that Job's old friends wish not only to convince him of the moral justice of evil, but in a certain sense they attempt to justify to themselves the moral meaning of suffering. In their eyes, suffering can have a meaning only as a punishment for sin, therefore only on the level of God's justice, who repays good with good and evil with evil.
The point of reference in this case is the doctrine expressed in other Old Testament writings which show us suffering as punishment inflicted by God for human sins. The God of revelation is the lawgiver and judge to a degree that no temporal authority can be. For the God of revelation is first of all the Creator, from whom comes, together with existence, the essential good of creation. Therefore, the conscious and free violation of this good by man is not only a transgression of the law, but at the same time an offense against the Creator, who is the first lawgiver. Such a transgression has the character of sin, according to the exact meaning of this word, namely the biblical and theological one. Corresponding to the moral evil of sin is punishment, which guarantees the moral order in the same transcendent sense in which this order is laid down by the will of the Creator and supreme lawgiver. From this there also derives one of the fundamental truths of religious faith, equally based upon revelation, namely that God is a just judge, who rewards good and punishes evil:
"For thou art just in all that thou hast done to us, and all thy works are true and thy ways right, and all thy judgements truth. Thou has executed true judgements in all that thou hast brought upon us ... for in truth and justice thou hast brought all this upon us because of our sins" (23) .
The opinion expressed by Job's friends manifests a conviction also found in the moral conscience of humanity: The objective moral order demands punishment for transgression, sin and crime. From this point of view, suffering appears as a :justified evil." The conviction of those who explain suffering as a punishment for sin finds support in the order of justice, and this corresponds to the conviction expressed by one of Job's friends: "As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and so trouble reap the same" (24) .
23. ff; cf. Ps 19,10 (18); Ps 36,7 (35); Ps 48,12 (47); Ps 51,6 (50); Ps 99,4 (98); Ps 119,75 (118); Ml 3,16-21 Mt 20,16 Mc 10,31 Lc 17,34 Jn 5,30 Rm 2,2.
24. Jb 4,8.
11 11. Job however challenges the truth of the principle that identifies suffering with punishment for sin. And he does this on the basis of his own opinion. For he is aware that he has not deserved such punishment, and in fact he speaks of the good that he has done during his life. In the end, God himself reproves Job's friends for their accusations and recognizes that Job is not guilty. His suffering is the suffering of someone who is innocent; it must be accepted as a mystery, which the individual is unable to penetrate completely by his own intelligence.
The Book of Job does not violate the foundations of the transcendent moral order, based upon justice, as they are set forth by the whole of revelation, in both the Old and the New Covenants. At the same time, however, this book shows with all firmness that the principles of this order cannot be applied in an exclusive and superficial way. While it is true that suffering has a meaning as punishment, when it is connected with a fault, it is not true that all suffering is a consequence of a fault and has the nature of a punishment. The figure of the just man Job is a special proof of this in the Old Testament. Revelation, which is the word of God himself, with complete frankness presents the problem of the suffering of an innocent man: suffering without guilt. Job has not been punished, there was no reason for inflicting a punishment on him, even if he has been subjected to a grievous trial. From the introduction of the book it is apparent that God permitted this testing as a result of Satan's provocation. For Satan had challenged before the Lord the righteousness of Job:
"Does Job fear God for naught? ... Thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But put forth thy hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse thee to thy face" (25) .
And if the Lord consents to test Job with suffering, he does it to demonstrate the latter's righteousness. The suffering has the nature of a test.
The Book of Job is not the last word on this subject in revelation. In a certain way it is a foretelling of the passion of Christ. But already in itself it is sufficient argument why the answer to the question about the meaning of suffering is not to be unreservedly linked to the moral order, based on justice alone. While such an answer has fundamental and transcendent reason and validity, at the same time it is seen to be not only unsatisfactory in cases similar to the suffering of the just man Job, but it even seems to trivialize and impoverish the concept of justice which we encounter in revelation.
12 12. The Book of Job poses in an extremely acute way the question of the "why" of suffering; it also shows that suffering strikes the innocent, but it does not yet give the solution to the problem.
Already in the Old Testament we note an orientation that begins to go beyond the concept according to which suffering has a meaning only as a punishment for sin, insofar as it emphasizes at the same time the educational value of suffering as a punishment. Thus in the sufferings inflicted by God upon the chosen people there is included an invitation of his mercy, which corrects in order to lead to conversion: "These punishments were designed not to destroy but to discipline our people" (26) .
Thus the personal dimension of punishment is affirmed. According to this dimension, punishment has a meaning not only because it serves to repay the objective evil of the transgression with another evil, but first and foremost because it creates the possibility of rebuilding goodness in the subject who suffers.
This is an extremely important aspect of suffering. It is profoundly rooted in the entire revelation of the Old and above all the New Covenant. Suffering must serve for conversion, that is, for the rebuilding of goodness in the subject, who can recognize the divine mercy in this call to repentance. The purpose of penance is to overcome evil, which under different forms lies dormant in man. Its purpose is also to strengthen goodness both in man himself and in his relationships with others and especially with God.
25. Jb 1,9-11.
26. 2 Mc 6,12.
13 13. But in order to perceive the true answer to the "why" of suffering, we must look to the revelation of divine love, the ultimate source of the meaning of everything that exists. Love is also the richest source of the meaning of suffering, which always remains a mystery: We are conscious of the insufficiency and inadequacy of our explanations. Christ causes us to enter into the mystery and to discover the "why" of suffering, as far as we are capable of grasping the sublimity of divine love.
In order to discover the profound meaning of suffering, following the revealed word of God, we must open ourselves wide to the human subject in his manifold potentiality. We must above all accept the light of revelation not only insofar as it expresses the transcendent order of justice, but also insofar as it illuminates this order with love, as the definitive source of everything that exists. Love is also the fullest source of the answer to the question of the meaning of suffering. This answer has been given by God to man in the cross of Jesus Christ.
14 14. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (27) . These words, spoken by Christ in his conversation with Nicodemus, introduce us into the very heart of God's salvific work. They also express the very essence of Christian soteriology, that is, of the theology of salvation. Salvation means liberation from evil, and for this reason it is closely bound up with the problem of suffering. According to the words spoken to Nicodemus, God gives his Son to "the world" to free man from evil, which bears within itself the definitive and absolute perspective on suffering. At the same time, the very word "gives" ("gave") indicates that this liberation must be achieved by the only-begotten Son through his own suffering. And in this, love is manifested, the infinite love both of that only-begotten Son and of the Father who for this reason "gives" his son. This is the love for man, love for the "world": It is salvific love.
We here find ourselves -- and we must clearly realize this in our shared reflection on this problem -- faced with a completely new dimension of our theme. It is a different dimension from the one which was determined and, in a certain sense, concluded the search for the meaning of suffering within the limits of justice. This is the dimension of redemption, to which the Old Testament, at least in the Vulgate text, the words of the just man Job already seem to refer: «For I know that my redeemer lives, and at last ... I shall see God" (28) . Whereas our consideration has so far concentrated primarily and in a certain sense exclusively on suffering in its multiple temporal dimension (as also the sufferings of the just man Job), the words quoted above from Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus refer to suffering in its fundamental and definitive meaning. God gives his only-begotten Son so that man "should not perish," and the meaning of these words " should not perish" is precisely specified by the words that follow: "but have eternal life."
Man "perishes" when he loses "eternal life." The opposite of salvation is not therefore only temporal suffering, any king of suffering, but the definitive suffering: the loss of eternal life, being rejected by God, damnation. The only-begotten Son was given to humanity primarily to protect man against this definitive evil and against definitive suffering. In his salvific mission the Son must therefore strike evil right at its transcendental roots from which it develops in human history. These transcendental roots of evil are grounded in sin and death: for they are at the basis of the loss of eternal life. The mission of the only-begotten Son consists in conquering sin and death. He conquers sin by his obedience unto death, and he overcomes death by his resurrection.
27. Jn 3,16.
28. Jb 19,25-26.
15 15. When one says that Christ by his mission strikes at evil at its very roots, we have in mind not only evil and definitive eschatological suffering (so that man "should not perish, but have eternal life"), but also -- at least indirectly -- evil and suffering in sin and death. And even if we must use great caution in judging man's suffering as a consequence of concrete sins (this is shown precisely by the example of the just man Job), nevertheless suffering cannot be divorced from the sin of the beginnings, from what St. John calls "the sin of the world" (29) , from the sinful background of the personal actions and social processes in human history. Though it is not licit to apply here the narrow criterion of direct dependence (as Job's three friends did), it is equally true that one cannot reject the criterion that at the basis of human suffering there is a complex involvement with sin.
It is the same when we deal with death. It is often awaited even as a liberation from the suffering of this life. At the same time, it is not possible to ignore the fact that it constitutes as it were a definitive summing up of the destructive work both in the bodily organism and in the psyche. But death primarily involves the dissolution of the entire psychophysical personality of man. The soul survives and subsists separated from the body, while the body is subjected to gradual decomposition according to the words of the Lord God, pronounced after the sin committed by man at the beginning of his earthly history: "You are dust and to dust you shall return" (30) . Therefore, even if death is not a form of suffering in the temporal sense of the word, even if in a certain way it is beyond all forms of suffering, at the same time the evil which the human being experiences in death has a definitive and total character. By his salvific work, the only-begotten Son liberates man from sin and death. First of all, he blots out from human history the dominion of sin, which took root under the influence of the evil spirit, beginning with original sin, and then he gives man the possibility of living in sanctifying grace. In the wake of his victory over sin, he also takes away the dominion of death, by his resurrection beginning the process of the future resurrection of the body. Both are essential conditions of "eternal life," that is, of man's definitive happiness in union with God; this means, for the saved, that in the eschatological perspective suffering is totally blotted out.
As a result of Christ's salvific work, man exists on earth with the hope of eternal life and holiness. And even though the victory over sin and death achieved by Christ in his cross and resurrection does not abolish temporal suffering from human life nor free from suffering the whole historical dimension of human existence, it nevertheless throws a new light upon this dimension and upon every suffering: the light of salvation. This is the light of the Gospel, that is, of the good news. At the heart of this light is the truth expounded in the conversation with Nicodemus: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son" (31) . This truth radically changes the picture of man's history and his earthly situation: In spite of the sin that took root in this history both as an original inheritance and as the "sin of the world" and as the sum of personal sins, God the Father has loved the only-begotten Son, that is, loves him in a lasting way; and then in time, precisely through this all-surpassing love, he "gives" this Son, that he may strike at the very roots of human evil and thus draw close in a salvific way to the whole world of suffering in which man shares.
29. Jn 1,29.
30. Gn 3,19.
31. Jn 3,16.
16 16. In his messianic activity in the midst of Israel, Christ drew increasingly closer to the world of human suffering. "He went about doing good" (32) , and his actions concerned primarily those who were suffering and seeking help. He healed the sick, consoled the afflicted, fed the hungry, freed people from deafness, from blindness, from leprosy, from the devil and from various physical disabilities, three times he restored the dead to life. He was sensitive to every human suffering, whether of the body or of the soul. And at the same time he taught, and at the heart of his teaching there are the eight beatitudes, which addressed to people tried by various sufferings in their temporal life. These are "poor in spirit" and "the afflicted" and "those who hunger and thirst for justice" and those who are «persecuted for justice' sake," when they insult them, persecute them and speak falsely every kind of evil against them for the sake of Christ ... (33) . Thus according to Matthew; Luke mentions explicitly those "who hunger now" (34) .
At any rate, Christ drew close above all to the world of human suffering through the fact of having taken this suffering upon his very self. During his public activity he experienced not only fatigue, homelessness, misunderstanding even on the part of those closest to him, but, more than anything, he became progressively more and more isolated and encircled by hostility and the preparations for putting him to death. Christ is aware of this and often speaks to his disciples of the sufferings and death that await him:
"Behold, we are going to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him to the Gentiles; and they will mock him, and spit upon him, and scourge him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise" (35) .
Christ goes toward his passion and death with full awareness of the mission that he has to fulfill precisely in this way. Precisely by means of this suffering he must bring it about "that man should not perish, but have eternal life." Precisely by means of his cross he must accomplish the work of salvation. This work, in the plan of eternal love, has a redemptive character.
And therefore Christ severely reproves Peter when the latter wants to make him abandon the thoughts of suffering and of death on the cross (36) . And when, during his arrest in Jerusalem, the same Peter tries to defend him with the sword, Christ says, "Put your sword back into its place ... But who then should the scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?" (37) . And he also says, "Shall I not drink the cup which the Father has given me?" (38) . This response, like others that reappear in different points of the Gospel, shows how profoundly Christ was imbued by the thought that he had already expressed in the conversation with Nicodemus: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (39) . Christ goes toward his own suffering, aware of its saving power; he goes forward in obedience to the Father, but primarily he is united to the Father in this love with which he has loved the world and man in the world. And for this reason St. Paul will write of Christ: "He loved me and gave himself for me" (40) .
32. Ac 10,38.
33. Cf. Mt 5,3-11.
34. Cf. Lc 6,12.
35. Mc 10,33-34.
36. Cf. Mt 16,23.
37. Mt 26,52 Mt 26,54.
38. Jn 18,11.
39. Jn 3,16.
40. Ga 2,20
17 17. The scriptures had to be fulfilled. There were many messianic texts in the Old Testament which foreshadowed the sufferings of the future Anointed One of God. Among all these, particularly touching is the one which is commonly called the fourth song of the suffering servant, in the Book of Isaiah. The prophet, who has rightly been called "the fifth evangelist," presents in this song an image of the sufferings of the servant with a realism as acute as if he were seeing them with his own eyes: the eyes of the body and of the spirit. In the light of the verses of Isaiah, the passion of Christ becomes almost more expressive and touching than in the descriptions of the evangelists themselves. Behold the true Man of Sorrows presents himself before us:
"He had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
"But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (41) .
The song of the suffering servant contains a description in which it is possible, in a certain sense, to identify the stages of Christ's passion in their various details: the arrest, the humiliation, the blows, the spitting, the contempt for the prisoner, the unjust sentence, and then the scourging, the crowning with thorns and the mocking, the carrying of the cross, the crucifixion and the agony.
Even more than this description of the passion, what strikes us in the words of the prophet is the depth of Christ's sacrifice. Behold, he, though innocent, takes upon himself the sufferings of all people, because he takes upon himself the sins of all. "The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all": All human sin in its breadth and depth becomes the true cause of the Redeemer's suffering. If the suffering «is measured" by the evil suffered, then the words of the prophet enable us to understand the extent of this evil and suffering with which Christ burdened himself. It can be said that this is «substantive" suffering; but above all it is "redemptive." The man of sorrows of that prophecy is truly the "Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (42). In his suffering, sins are canceled out precisely because he alone as the only-begotten Son could take them upon himself, accept them with that love for the Father which overcomes the evil of every sin; in a certain sense he annihilates this evil in the spiritual space of the relationship between God and humanity, and fills this space with good.
Here we touch upon the duality of nature of a single personal subject of redemptive suffering. He who by his passion and death on the cross brings about the redemption is the only-begotten Son whim God "gave." And at the same time this Son who is consubstantial with the Father suffers as a man. His suffering has human dimensions; it also has -- unique in the history of humanity -- an incomparable depth and intensity of suffering, insofar as the man who suffers is in person the only-begotten Son himself: "God from God." Therefore, only he -- the only-begotten Son -- is capable of embracing the measure of evil contained in the sin of man: in every sin and in "total" sin, according to the dimensions of the historical existence of humanity on earth.
41. Is 53,2-6.
42. Jn 1,29.
18 18. It can be said that the above consideration now brings us directly to Gethsemane and Golgotha, where the song of the suffering servant contained in the Book of Isaiah was fulfilled. But before going there, let us read the next verses of the song, which give a prophetic anticipation of the passion at Gethsemane and Golgotha. The suffering servant -- and this in turn is essential for an analysis of Christ's passion -- takes on himself those sufferings which were spoken of, in a totally voluntary way:
"He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.
"By oppression and judgement he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth" (43) .
Christ suffers voluntarily and suffers innocently. With his suffering he accepts that question which -- posed by people many times -- has been expressed in a certain sense in a radical way by the Book of Job. Christ, however, not only carries with himself the same question (and this in an even more radical way, for he is not only a man like Job, but the only-begotten Son of God), but he also carries the greatest possible answer to this question. One can say that this answer emerges from the very matter of which the question is made up. Christ gives the answer to the question about suffering and the meaning of suffering not only by his teaching, that is, by the good news, but most of all by his own suffering, which is integrated with this teaching of the good news in an organic and indissoluble way. And this is the final, definitive word of this teaching: "the word of the cross," as St. Paul one day will say (44) .
This "word of the cross" completes with a definitive reality the image of the ancient prophecy. Many episodes, many discourses, during Christ's public teaching bear witness to the way in which from the beginning he accepts this suffering which is the will of the Father for the salvation of the world. However, the prayer in Gethsemane becomes a definitive point here. The words: "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt" (45) , and later: "My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, thy will be done" (46) , have a manifold eloquence. They prove the truth of that love which the only-begotten Son gives to the Father in his obedience. At the same time, they attest to the truth of his suffering. The words of that prayer of Christ in Gethsemane prove the truth of love through the truth of suffering. Christ's words confirm with all simplicity this human truth of suffering to its very depths: Suffering is the undergoing of evil before which man shudders. He says: "Let it pass from me," just as Christ says in Gethsemane.
His words also attest to this unique and incomparable depth and intensity of suffering which only the man who is the only-begotten Son could experience; they attest to that depth and intensity which the prophetic words quoted above in their own way help us to understand. Not of course completely (for this we would have to penetrate the divine-human mystery of the subject), but at least they help us to understand that difference (and at the same time the similarity) which exists between every possible form of human suffering and the suffering of the God-man. Gethsemane is the place where precisely this suffering, in all truth expressed by the prophet concerning the evil experienced in it, is revealed as it were definitively before the eyes of Christ's soul.
After the words in Gethsemane come the words uttered on Golgotha, words which bear witness to this depth -- unique in the history of the world -- of the evil of the suffering experienced. When Christ says: «My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" his words are not only an expression of that abandonment which many times found expression in the Old Testament, especially in the psalms and in particular in that Psalm 22 (21) from which come the words quoted (47) . One can say that these words on abandonment are born at the level of that inseparable union of the Son with the Father, and are born because the Father «laid on him the iniquity of us all" (48) . They foreshadow the words of St. Paul: "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin" (49) . Together with this horrible weight, encompassing the "entire" evil of the turning away from God which is contained in sin, Christ, through the divine depth of his filial union with the Father, perceives in a humanly inexpressible way this suffering which is the separation, the rejection by the Father, the estrangement from God. But precisely through this suffering he accomplishes the redemption and can say as he breathes his last: "It is finished" (50) .
One can also say that the scripture has been fulfilled, that these words of the song of the suffering servant have been definitively accomplished: "It was the will of the Lord to bruise him" (51) . Human suffering has reached its culmination in the passion of Christ. And at the same time it has entered into a completely new dimension and a new order: It has been linked to love, to that love of which Christ spoke to Nicodemus, to that love which creates good, drawing it out by means of suffering, just as the supreme good of the redemption of the world was drawn from the cross of Christ and from that cross constantly takes its beginning. The cross of Christ has become a source from which flow rivers of living water (52) . In it we must also pose anew the question about the meaning of suffering and read in it, to its very depths, the answer to this question.
43. Is 53,7-9.
44. Cf. 1Co 1,18.
45. Mt 26,39.
46. Mt 26,42.
47. Ps 22,2 (21).
48. Is 53,6.
49. 2Co 5,21.
50. Jn 19,30.
51. Is 53,10.
52. Cf. Jn 7,37-38.