Meet adversity with dignity, courage, hope

  • April 27, 2007
Fifth Sunday of Easter (Year C) May 6 (Acts 14:21-27/Revelation 21:1-5a/Jn 13:31-33a, 34-35)

Paul is a hard man to keep down. He has just endured being stoned and left for dead, but he merely got up, dusted himself off and continued his journey and mission. He doesn’t seem disillusioned or discouraged — in fact, he spends time encouraging others in the faith.
The followers of Jesus struggled to understand why the Messiah had to suffer and die, and why they were having the same experience. This is very much part of Luke’s theology, for it echoes the last chapter of his Gospel: tribulations are necessary in order to enter into the Kingdom of God. This sounds rather strange to our ears — why should suffering be our ticket to God’s Kingdom?

We must be very careful not to romanticize or spiritualize suffering, for that can lead to toleration of injustice and cruelty. There is no intrinsic value to suffering, for value is added only by our attitude and response. Paul meets his own tribulations with acceptance and joy, for he is confident that it merely “goes with the territory” of being an apostle.

The same principle applies for our own life. God does not necessarily dole out every negative experience we have, for we live in an imperfect world with imperfect people — these things are just part of living. What we are asked to do, however, is to refuse to be a victim, to hate or to wallow in despair or self pity. Meeting adversity with dignity, courage and hope can transform both the situation and the individual.

During persecution or just life’s adversities, we will learn about ourselves: our character, as well as the depth and quality of our faith. The serenity prayer has good advice: change the things we can change, accept with patience the things that we cannot change and pray for the wisdom to know the difference.

The vision of the New Jerusalem is deeply embedded in our religious consciousness. It is woven into literature, art, music and poetry, for it touches something deep in the human heart and soul. Who does not wish for a world in which there is no death, suffering or tears? Who does not wish that God were right down here dwelling with us? Our tendency has been to treat this vision merely as something that we might experience after we die. The early Christians saw the vision as a preview of the way the world would be transformed after the return of the Lord.

In a sense, both are correct. It certainly depicts what we will experience fully at the end of our journey when we are definitively with God. But God is not absent now; God consoles now; God can be experienced now. We will experience this to the degree that we open our hearts and minds both to the suffering of the world and the presence of God.

What if we were forbidden any external displays or expression of religion? I visited one such nation — Albania — shortly after the fall of its brutal Stalinist dictatorship. For 40 years, religion, God, churches and mosques, Bibles and the Quran, all forms of religious worship and devotion, had been forbidden. An uttered prayer, a Bible, the sign of the cross or the baptism of an infant often resulted in imprisonment or death. Faith of some sort still survived those terrible years.

Jesus proposes one such external sign that can never be outlawed or taken away: love. And not just any love, but self-giving love that is willing to lay down life itself for others. This is the essence of our faith, the essence of God and the authenticating sign that we are truly disciples of Jesus. It is not really new, for it is very much part of the tradition of the Old Testament and is quoted by Jesus: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength: and your neighbour as yourself (Mk 12:29-31).

It is new in that it is the foundational commandment and core principle for the community of those who wish to be the disciples of Jesus.

How would we proclaim the message of Jesus without explicitly religious words and gestures? The world may depend on how well we can do that.