We have just heard (Luke 13:1-9) Jesus refer to two tragedies of his time. The first was the collapse of a building that killed 18 people; and the second was the massacre by Roman soldiers of people taking part in a religious Service. The victims in each case were innocent people – one caused by an accident and the other by an evil act.

If Our Lord was to refer to similar tragedies in our time, he’d most likely include a reference to the massacre and displacement of innocent people in Ukraine; or, perhaps, the Grenfell Tower disaster in London; or even, closer to home, the tragedy of people being killed in a motor accident; or children and relatively young adults being struck with cancer or some other disease.

Whatever the event, Jesus is asked the question that applies to all of them: why do people, such as the innocent Galileans, suffer such a fate.

The common belief in Jesus’ day was that personal tragedy was divine punishment for something wrong a person had done. It was payback, God’s way of getting even for sins committed. Jesus rejected this explanation. Unfortunately, he did not explain why bad things happen to good people or why good things happen to wicked people. But he flatly rejected the traditional view that personal suffering or tragedy was punishment from God.

So, if we are to take Jesus at his word, suffering is not deliberately inflicted on us by God in retaliation for something we have done or failed to do. In moments of desperation, especially in guilt, we might be tempted to think otherwise but Jesus seems quite clear that this is not the case.

If God is all-powerful and merciful, why is there suffering? The honest answer is that we just don’t know [and beware of those who say they do]. All we know for certain is that suffering is an inescapable part of what it is to be human. However much we rail against our lot, eventually we all must accept that suffering (and death) is an inescapable dimension of human life – so much so that by becoming fully human Jesus also experienced this condition.

While Jesus offered no explanation for suffering, his life is a lesson on how we can respond to it. Firstly, he made his suffering part of his relationship with God. The suffering he could not escape he eventually accepted for the higher purpose of serving humankind. Some Christians also take this approach, accepting and offering their suffering for a greater good.

Here is how St Paul approached his suffering (2 Corinthians 1:3-5):

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ … who comforts us in all our sorrows, so that we can offer others, in their sorrows, the consolation that we have received from God ourselves.

 Paul saw his suffering (which included epilepsy, we think) as enabling him to identify with others in their suffering and be in a better position to ‘comfort’ them.  Awareness of his own ‘thorn in the flesh’ made him reach out with compassion to others, seeing this as a ministry to which God called him. So might it be possible for us to do likewise, our own suffering making us less selfish and a better person for others?

Secondly, Jesus invites us to bear the cross of our personal suffering – mental, emotional or physical – with him. By ‘taking up’ our ‘cross’ with him, as he asks, we are never alone in our own pain: he is in solidarity with us. He knows real pain, heartache and suffering and so understands ours. He may not take our suffering away – not even he could he avoid his – but he can help us to bear it, not least when all seems lost and help is not to be found elsewhere.

Thirdly, Jesus asks us to do what we can to alleviate the suffering of others. As he teaches, we do this by caring for the sick, supporting the weak, lending a hand to the poor, welcoming the refugee, grieving with those who mourn, and showing compassion and mercy to each other.

As for welcoming the refugee, there has been a very generous response so far to the plight of the people fleeing Ukraine. These poor people have incredible heavy crosses to bear, and their suffering is unimaginable. Apart from the donation of supplies and financial contributions to the agencies helping them, I know that some members and friends of Holy Name have contacted the Sanctuary Foundation to pledge further personal support. I also have contacted the Foundation and await a response to see how we at Holy Name can help. In addition, Bishop Robert Byrne has asked the Hexham and Newcastle Caritas agency to coordinate a diocesan response. He already has asked for a list of properties, including empty presbyteries, in the Diocese that could be used to house the refugees who may come here.

In Lent and as we approach Holy Week, our attention is drawn to the suffering of Jesus. It’s a time also to be see his face in the suffering of others and respond as generously as we can. As he teaches in the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 25), when we help anyone who suffers we also are helping him.

Michael Campion
Holy Name, Jesmond
20 March 2022

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