Holy Week: The Redemptive Value of Suffering

Father Chet, Holy Week 1969 (republished March 30, 2021)

The primary purpose of Holy Week is to put us into the proper mood and frame of mind to appreciate the high price Jesus Christ paid for our redemption from sin and our salvation by grace. The intention of the church is that Holy Week should be a time of retreat for all Christians; a time to meditate and reflect upon the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; and a time to make application to ourselves of this mystery of resurrection through suffering and death.

Each year, when we return to Holy Week, the mystery of suffering and death is presented in the stark tragedy of Good Friday and Calvary. Why suffering? Why was it necessary for Jesus Christ, the son of God and the Son of Man, to die on the cross? What new insights into the meaning of suffering and death can we discover as we commemorate Holy Week this year?

Sin, Guilt, and Forgiveness

It is so important and necessary that we maintain a balanced view toward forgiveness and punishment and not allow ourselves to go to extremes in either direction. On the one hand, we must keep a strong faith and hope that no matter how terrible or long-lasting or oft repeated the sin, God does forgive the sinner, if one sincerely repents and makes a deliberate and free choice to change the direction of one’s life. We believe that God gives every sinner the ability and the opportunity to repent and be converted.

On the other hand, we must not be too easy on ourselves and imagine that, once we have received the grace of forgiveness from God, the effects of the past automatically disappear. Forgiveness of sins means that God is willing to give us another chance, that God does not permanently condemn us for our past sins, that God still loves us and is willing to give us all the needed grace and strength to change the direction of our lives and to remedy the harmful effects of our past sins.

Healing and Redemption

The work of healing and conversion is not over when we leave the confessional; rather this is the beginning of a long, hard effort. We leave the sacrament of penance with assurance that God will not abandon us, but will continue to help us to bring about the necessary complete change in our way of living. We no longer work alone at the tasks of restoration and spiritual health; the all-powerful Jesus Christ is at our side.

Rather than attempt to judge ourselves, rather than attempt to pass judgment upon others and condemn them for their faults, we should realize the solidarity of the whole human race. In one way or another, all of us are involved in the sinfulness of mankind. Instead of trying to pinpoint the blame, we must ask each other, what can we do together to redeem the guilt and evil effects of our past sins? Whether we like it or not, we all must work together to eradicate the evil and suffering in the world so that everyone can enjoy the good things of the earth and the blessedness of God.

Virus of Evil

There is a definite energy of evil generated in the world every time a person deliberately chooses to be dishonest, unjust, untruthful, selfish; every time someone chooses to hate instead of love, to tear down instead of build, to hurt instead of help.

This energy might be compared to the evil virus of some dread disease. Not only can the virus spread to other human beings and cause innocent victims to suffer, it also has the mysterious power to perpetuate itself by using whatever material it finds in its victim to multiply 100 or 1000 times over. Within a comparatively short time the evil can assume epidemic proportions.

How do we remedy the evil consequences of such a virus? How do we put a stop to the epidemic and the widespread suffering it causes?

Transformation of Evil into Good

When a virus invades a human body to combat its effects the body produces or receives from others the substance called an antigen.  Normally the body proteins combine with the virus to produce more and more virus. However, when an antigen is introduced into the body, the body proteins form antibodies which absorb the power of the virus within themselves without reproducing the virus or passing it on to other proteins.

These antibodies offer themselves as victims to the evil power of the virus. They receive the full shock of the evil force upon themselves and are often destroyed in their battle with the bacteria or the virus. However, they effectively bring to an end the power of evil generated by the bacteria or virus because they do not produce more evil but absorb it.

In this physical process of the formation of the antigen we have a beautiful symbol of the power of redemption as revealed by the life of Jesus Christ. The evil effects of sin were passed on from one generation to another until He was willing to absorb the suffering without causing anyone else to suffer unnecessarily. The evil results of our own past sins will continue to build up until either we ourselves or others become antibodies willing to suffer the effects of evil, but unwilling to meet violence with more violence, evil with more evil.

Nonviolent Resistance

The modern theory of nonviolent resistance to evil as demonstrated by Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi is probably the best and most modern expression of the work of redemption as practiced by Jesus Christ in his sufferings and death on Calvary. True nonviolent resistance to evil is not motivated by cowardice but by love and respect for the dignity of the persecutor. It clearly distinguishes between the sin and the sinner.

There is no passive acceptance of sin as inevitable.  Rather, evil is actively resisted by accepting the suffering caused by the evil act without returning evil or inflicting it upon another. Thus violence is brought to an end through the refusal to resort to further violence.

A prerequisite for every non-belligerent resistor of evil is a sincere love for the person of the attacker. His or her aim is not to injure or humiliate the opponent, but only to convert the other to love and goodness by changing that person’s understanding and sense of values. He or she appeals to the aggressor’s decency, treating the person as a reasonable human being capable of judging correctly between justice and injustice, between good and evil. One never loses the hope that sooner or later the perpetrator of violence will come to their senses and see the evil of their ways and be converted.

Motivated by Love

We need not assume that men and women are inherently good or essentially depraved.  We need only believe that all people are capable of either goodness or evil, depending upon the direction they choose or the direction in which they are encouraged or stimulated to go.

Another prerequisite for the peaceable resistor of evil is the willingness to suffer and even die at the hands of the attacker. The nonviolent resistor recognizes that nothing is changed without struggle and conflict. However, he or she seeks to make the suffering and conflict redemptive after the example of Jesus Christ and his crucifixion.

Unearned suffering is especially redemptive, if we accept it with love and continue to love the person who causes the suffering. As Jesus said on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Conversion to a New Attitude

We live in an age of violence. There is a strong movement to maintain law and order by massive displays of force and by whatever violence is necessary to suppress all threats to our country and its peace. The use of force and violence to maintain peace and order has such a long history that most citizens assume it’s a necessity without even stopping to reflect upon its reasonableness.

The idea of nonviolent resistance to evil is so foreign to the thinking of most people that acceptance among the majority in the world today will be difficult. We are accustomed to reading the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) with a large grain of salt. Christ’s words about not resisting the evildoer, loving our enemies, and turning the other cheek are glossed over and not taken seriously. They seem so unrealistic to us that we rationalize and say that these words do not really mean what they actually say.

How then, can we ever expect a conversion in the attitude of the masses of people from the use of violence to the use of nonviolence? The answer to this question is to be found in the results of Jesus Christ’s death on the cross, Mahatma Gandhi’s peaceful resistance to British imperialism, and Martin Luther King’s efforts to change this country’s deplorable racial attitudes. Life has changed for countless millions; and other people will change their thinking about the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of nonviolent resistance to evil only when enough heroic souls are willing to prove by their example that such an attitude can change the lives of millions more.

Begin Where We Are

Nonviolent resistance will not settle all conflicts and all problems.  There is great need for education and the employment of other methods, not the least of which is prayer. However, ultimately, the willingness to suffer for one’s neighbor, and for one’s own past sins, will bring peace, love, and unity to humankind.

Tremendous conviction is needed to persevere; but, it is the way taught by Jesus Christ, and perhaps the only method that will bring peace, order, love, and unity to this world presently torn by war and violence. We must find an army of Christians who are willing to fill up those sufferings which are still wanting in the sufferings of Christ.

None of us may feel that we possess the heroic courage of Jesus Christ. However, if we are willing to accept the redemptive value of suffering, we can begin wherever we are and do our best. In our daily relationships we can resist hatred with love, vindictiveness with forgiveness, violence with calmness, injustice with justice. We can make all things new by following the way of Calvary and Crucifixion, which always leads to Easter and Resurrection.

Father Chet noted the following:

In the course of my preparation for this issue, I had occasion to listen to Father Clement Burns, O.P., associate pastor at St. Thomas Parish here in Charlottesville.  Father Burns led a discussion among the priests of our deanery on the theology of nonviolent resistance to evil.  The ideas he presented were so much in accord with the subject of the redemptive value of suffering that I have incorporated them into this message.

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