The events in Eastern Europe are bringing us face-to-face with the mystery that is at the core of our faith: There is a mysterious connection between suffering and salvation.
This is not mere pious sentiment. Rather, it is the mystery set in motion by the Death and Resurrection of Christ. Its origins lie in the relations of the Divine Trinity, where the Father eternally pours himself out as Son (Salvation), and the Son eternally returns everything to the Father (Suffering). To be sure, though, when these happen in the midst of the ups and downs of human history, then their meaning takes on a somewhat different appearance.
This deep mystery is currently right in front of us in a number of ways. Christ came to save us in a hostile world, where suffering is part of living. He also came to change that hostile world, so that suffering takes on a special, colossal meaning for everyone. And he maintains his bond with us through it all. “I am with you always . . .”
The “world” is hostile to us as Christians and to humanity in general. Jesus said: “If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you.” (John 15:19) There is a glorious protection and power that comes into the world with the Resurrection. It is this power, the power of the Resurrection that alone guards us and reassures us in the present, and opens the future to the Heavenly Jerusalem.
This is the change that Jesus wrought: he is with us, and we are safe with him in the Church. So, despite the secular denigration of the Church and despite even the people in the Church who are struggling to diminish it, Christ is with us in a way that is only brought out by the Easter Season.
Because he is glorified and risen, he is here regardless of what we think or do. This means that the hostile world, which has been allowed to run its course for a little time yet, is still lethal in many ways. But like a boat in a storm or a fortress on a hill, the Church is where Jesus’ presence makes it a refuge.
Jesus said to his Father: “I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one.” (John 17:15) The Evil One is still our main opponent and just as Jesus had to walk the way of the Cross, in a world that was plotting his demise, so do we. We are not greater than the Master. If ever there was a special time when we approximate to Christ, this is it.
So we live in a curious situation, in the world but not of the world. This means that there are still nails being driven into human flesh. We know that personally in many cases. Then, of course, there is the spectacle of the war going on in Europe. The bodies in the streets, the grieving people, the mass graves, the blown-up buildings, and the crematoria are all back.
In our middle-class world, we can often fool ourselves that we have everything under our control.
The routine – of Mass on Sundays, donations to charities, helping others when it’s convenient for us to do so – has suddenly been changed and revealed its narrow limits.
We face forces far greater than our comfortable world has allowed us to see for many years. In reality, we have always been challenged by these titanic forces. They lie just below the surface. Remember Benjamin Franklin’s words to the woman who asked what the Founders had wrought at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
These forces are not so apparent once we settle into comfortable lives. But now, with the horrifying news from Ukraine, these forces stand uncovered before us.
That we have a republic carries with it all kinds of obligations under international law, including such things as helping countries to defend their right to sovereignty, and the justice necessary to carry on their daily life. Pope Benedict once reminded the German Parliament:
“Without justice – what else is the State but a great band of robbers?” as Saint Augustine once said. We Germans know from our own experience that these words are no empty specter. We have seen how power became divorced from right, how power opposed right and crushed it, so that the State became an instrument for destroying right – a highly organized band of robbers, capable of threatening the whole world and driving it to the edge of the abyss.
The horrible contingencies of life that many people in the developing world deal with daily are now present in the first world. And as we take up our duties in the faith, as bystanders and more, we are back with Jesus and at the knife-edge on which he walked daily. And let us hope, to borrow some of his words: “This. . .is not to end in death, but for the glory of God.” (John 11:4)
*Image: An angel shows St. John the New Jerusalem, with the Lamb of God at its center by an unknown 11th-century artist, c. 1000-1020 [Bamberg State Library, Bamberg, Germany]. The image is from the Bamberger Apokalypse which was created in the scriptorium at the Benedictine abbey on Reichenau Island in Lake Constance in what is now the state of Baden-Württemberg.
You may also enjoy:
Pope St. John Paul II’s The Meaning of Suffering
W.H. Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts