Sunday, September 20, 2009


Well, the effects of my first steroid injection have worn off and I'm due for another this week. Meanwhile I continue to discover things via my bad disks. Here are two recent passages from my prayer journal…

Sept 15. I’m trying to get a spiritual perspective on my now-returned back pain. Not in the mood – pain does that to you.
Yesterday the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, today Our Lady of Sorrows. So much pain around in the world. Doesn’t God ever get sick of it? I guess I do! But maybe this is why we need such feast days, then – to let God take the pain and give it some meaning, putting it in the context of being lifted up with Christ to victory and glory.

Sept 19. Sitting in the sun on a bench under a tree behind the monastery. It’s a truly beautiful afternoon. Sitting right next to me is Brother Gereon. He’s physically able to speak, but his brain can’t put three words together into a phrase. He can think things but cannot communicate them, this former head of the Chemical Geology Department at Georgia Tech. Still physically strong, he’s becoming less and less steady on his feet, taking small steps and placing each foot carefully as if he’s constantly walking on thin ice. My back pain gives me a nudge to remind me that he’s surely suffering a lot more than I am right now.

The gospel for mass on the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (Sept. 14) is John 3:13-17:

No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

When this feast occurred just three days after September 11, 2001, I found a lot of consolation in meditating on this gospel passage. The following reflection I wrote around that time tells why:


I was first introduced to the problem of evil by a two-year old child. He was lying in a pediatric cancer ward with a big white bandage swathing his head like a turban. His parents' question became mine: "Why?"

I began to go back to books I'd once read about the problem of innocent suffering, and to study them again with an eye sharpened by a sense of urgency. The question was no longer just theoretical, but was as real as this dying baby. But still I found no answers to the paradox: God is all-powerful, all-good and all-loving; yet, at the same time, little babies keep getting brain tumors, and earthquakes and typhoons routinely wipe out thousands of innocent people every year.

The idea of a supposedly good God who allows tragedies to wreak such unspeakable havoc in our lives revolts the human spirit and baffles the human mind. Not even religious faith can give us satisfying answers.

A Plot that often escapes us.

Although Christianity cannot resolve the paradox of evil; it can offer a unique perspective. Our faith sees all of reality in terms of a single vast story of God's boundless, extravagant, reckless, incomprehensible love for all of creation. The plot of this story is, by definition, wide enough and deep enough to embrace everything, from the sublime beauty of the Grand Canyon to the obscene ugliness of Auschwitz's gas ovens. But it is this breadth of vision that poses an inescapable problem for us humans: any vision that is vast enough to encompass both the greatest goodness and the most depraved wickedness, will of necessity stretch well beyond the limits of our human intellect. Much of the story line, in other words, is always going to remain incomprehensible to us.

If the mystery of God's plan goes beyond the bounds of my human understanding, the only way I can make sense of reality is by choosing to believe that the world has a meaning. The gift of faith is not an answer but an invitation. It calls me to entrust myself to the hands of a mysterious but caring God whose ways of loving are often incomprehensible to me, a mere creature.
Over the centuries people have looked for ways of talking about the mystery of human suffering that will make it a little less overwhelming. The Gospel of John offers us just such an image in the elegant use of a single Greek verb, hupsoō (hoop-so'-o).

One of John's Favorite Words
Hupsoō, "to lift up" (its passive form is hupsōthēnai, "to be lifted up, to be raised high") is based on the preposition huper, "over, above," and usually has the figurative meaning of lifting someone to a position of honor, fame or power. Jesus uses it this way when he warns his followers, "Whoever exalts (hupsoō) himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted (hupsōthēnai)" (Matthew 23:12).

Sometimes, however, the verb is used literally, as when "Moses lifted up (hupsoō) the serpent in the desert" (John. 3:14a). This a reference to the story in Numbers 21:4-9 in which Moses fashions a bronze serpent so that the Israelites who are being punished by being bitten by "fiery serpents" can gaze on the bronze figure and be healed. This early use of hupsoō in the Hebrew scriptures prepares us for the deeper meaning it will take on in the New Testament.

John uses the verb in its literal sense to express Christ's being physically "lifted up" on the cross: "And just as Moses lifted up (hupsoō) the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up (hupsōthēnai) so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life" (John 3:14-15). But later on, with his love for double meanings, John has Jesus give us this ambiguous promise: "And when I am lifted up (hupsōthēnai) from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself" (John 12:32-34). Does this "being lifted up" refer to Christ's being lifted up on the cross, or to his finally being lifted up in glory to the right hand of God in heaven? Or does it refer to both at the same time? By playing on the double meaning of hupsōthēnai, John deftly links our human suffering with the mystery of Calvary, and then, using the cross as the starting point, describes a single upward surge in which all of creation -- including sin and suffering -- is lifted heavenward by the power of God's infinite, unconditional love.

Calvary is not the end of the Road

Christ "draws all to himself" (John 12:32-33) by being lifted up (hupsōthēnai) on the cross. Calvary is, however, only the first step in the process: Jesus' is then "lifted up" out of death by his Father. And Saint Paul teaches that this story is not just about Jesus, but includes us as well: "we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death… We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life" (Romans 6:3-4). In I Peter 3:13-22 human suffering is linked to the cross, and to "the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God…."

Thus, Christ's passion, death and resurrection are the very means by which we, too, are lifted to salvation. Suffering is a mysterious but integral part of the story of the ceaseless upward movement of divine love. Even if we may not be able to understand right now just how this whole thing works, faith tells us that we and all of creation are continuously being lifted up by, with, and in the risen Christ.

I need to develop the habit of seeing my life's story as part of the larger plot of salvation history. I can begin, for example, by identifying daily discomforts and inconveniences as so many small shares in the sufferings of Christ. The traditional Catholic practice of "offering up" the day's little inconveniences and sufferings is a way of consciously connecting my own tribulations with those of Jesus on Calvary.

I still don't know why little babies get sick and die. But John's beautiful word-play on hupsōthēnai hints that if I hold on until the end, the mystery of suffering will finally make sense on that day when I, along with the whole rest of creation, am lifted up with Christ in a blaze of glory.

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