The Mother of God, while bringing the Christ child to the temple, was greeted by an elderly man, the “just and devout man,” Simeon. Taking the child into his arms he spoke the well-known prophetic words of the Nunc Dimittis, “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace….” He spoke as well of the child’s future, with dark tones that hinted at the suffering he would endure. He turned as well to the young Mary and said, “And a sword will pierce your own soul also.” This inner suffering of the Mother of God, a mystical communion in the suffering of her Son, is, I believe, an unavoidable communion for all who would enter the Kingdom of God.
Human beings dislike suffering and in our modern age have directed much time and money to reduce and eliminate it. It is well and good to care for one another and to use God’s world and the gifts of healing that it affords. But there is no elimination of suffering – it remains an integral part of life.
The crucifixion of Christ and His death on the Cross are not removed from His proclamation of the Kingdom of God – the Cross is an inherent and integral part of the encounter of the Kingdom with the broken and fallen world in which we live. St. John’s gospel speaks of Christ’s crucifixion as His “glorification.” In the same manner, Christians are commanded by Christ to “take up your cross and follow me.” There is no description of the Christian life consistent with the gospels that does not contain a cross.
In many ways, Christ’s ministry can be described as a continual confrontation with the suffering world. In sending out the Twelve, he charged them:
…as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give (Matt. 10:7-8).
The preaching of the Kingdom is here described as synonymous with these encounters with brokenness, disease and bondage. In answer to inquiries from John the Baptist, Christ describes His ministry in terms that are unmistakeable in their proclamation of His messiahship:
Go and show John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them (Matt. 11:4-5).
Our daily lives are not commonly marked by our victorious prayer in the face of suffering. Often, the sick remain sick, the blind remain blind, lepers remain lepers, the deaf remain deaf and the dead remain dead. Needless to say that the poor remain with us always. But such encounters and spiritual weakness in our lives are not to be excused by consigning the blind, the lepers, the deaf and the dead to the “stuff of life” – as inevitable and unavoidable parts of the natural order. In much of modernity such a consignment is not only seen as “natural” – the Kingdom itself is consigned to the “supernatural” and postponed to some later date at the end of history. Those who accuse Christians of believing in “pie in the sky, by and by,” are speaking of this displaced and postponed Kingdom – which is decidedly not the gospel of Christ.
The inauguration of the Kingdom of God – announced in the preaching of Christ – is the confrontation between heaven and earth. It is not a preaching of a Second Storey to which we may all someday go when we die – it is a frontal assault on a world which sought to declare itself as secular territory – uninhabited by God. This proclamation does not cease with the Cross and Ressurection – it is Christ’s commission to His disciples – the very life of the Church.
But the character of this proclamation continues to hold the promise that “a sword will pierce your own soul also.” St. Paul describes his hope in the faith, praying that he might have:
the righteousness which is of God by faith: That I may know him [Christ], and the power of his resurrection, and the communion of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead (Philippians 3:9-11).
Nor does the great apostle see this as his own peculiar desire. At the conclusion of his expression of hope he encourages his readers to take on the same goal:
Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. (Philippians 3:15).
The Mother of God knew the communion of Christ’s sufferings at the Cross – a sword pierced her own soul. Her communion in the sufferings of Christ certainly included her grief as His mother, but far more as well. How does the grief of every mother not have some participation in the sword which pierced Mary’s soul? The grief of Mary, sanctified by its communion with the suffering of Christ, sanctifies the grief of all mothers in the same manner. It does not take away the grief, but it makes possible a transformation in which our grief is no longer the “stuff of this world,” but a communion in the Kingdom of God.
The commandment to “heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons” remains. St. Paul certainly fulfilled this commandment according to the measure of his faith. In our own life of faith such dramatic encounters may be present as well (according to the measure of faith), but even without such encounters we must refuse to cede territory to the adversary (including the disguise of neutrality in the secular account of life). The inauguration of the Kingdom of God includes Christ’s descent into Hades. There nowhere that is off-limits to Christ’s Kingdom.
Our encounter with suffering, whether in ourselves or in others, is also a place of the Kingdom. The Kingdom is not its cause, but its hope and redemption. Thus we can obey the commandment:
Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…(Ephesians 5:17-20).
It is doubtless the case that in our thanksgiving a sword may often pierce our own soul – but that, too, is a communion with Christ. In Christ it is also a communion with Mary and with all the saints who have taken up their crosses in obedience to Christ. Our souls, pierced by such a sword, groans together with all creation, awaiting the final triumph of the Kingdom. Our thanksgiving is an act of Eucharist (eucharistia=thanksgiving), a transformation of the world into the Kingdom of God. It is the fulfillment of the priesthood of all believers.
Such a life is not a freedom from suffering, but a communion in the sufferings of Christ that we might know the power of His resurrection.
Glory to God for all things!