By Thomas Palanza, Jr.
Life is a journey. This journey happens in a difficult world, one that is sometimes hard to live in. This difficult world frustrates us, sometimes to the point where we can’t bear it anymore. We then complain about how difficult the world is, how difficult our lifestyle is and we reject it, we seek to live a new way, a way that we hope will be easier. But then suffering comes upon us; yes, it seems to come upon us suddenly, from outside, intentionally at this moment when we are trying a new way – like it was waiting for us. And this new suffering is so much worse than before! How did we not expect the suffering would be worse? Then we wonder why we are suffering. Why did we suffer before, why are we suffering now, is there no way to live that will protect us from suffering? What is it about how we are living that is making life so hard? Where can we go for the strength, counsel, and healing that we will need to live better? When will we finally be delivered from our suffering? Who will give us a better life?
These are the questions that our first reading asks. Are they not our questions, are they not our challenges, are they not our longings? It is easy to separate ourselves from the Israelites, it is easy to see their mistakes – it is always easier to critique than to actually do. But we go through the same struggles as they did: we struggle to live well in a difficult world and we struggle to live in a loving relationship with God and our neighbors. The Israelites tried to make sense of their suffering; they believed God punished their sins with tangible afflictions. But Jesus reveals another truth – rather he deepens the faith of the Israelites. God does not inflict suffering on people as punishment for sin. The passages of the Man Born Blind and of Jesus’ Call to Repentance illustrate this well. Jesus reminds us that God does not cause suffering. The “providence” of suffering is that God is powerful enough to change even it, even death, into something good.
The punishment in the first reading is not the work of God. Suffering is the perfectly logical part of this life. That’s not what we expect of God. From God we expect the perfectly wonderful. What is the wonder of the first reading? Is it not that God uses the very thing that was bringing death to the people as the means to save them? What will cure a snake bite? Looking at a snake! This is the power of God at work, not the logic of the world. The logic of the world says snakes are deadly, but the wisdom of God says that the snake will heal.
Paradox appears in each of our readings this week and the only way to make sense of it is for God to be at work, paradoxically using the same, inevitable suffering to bring healing to humanity. God shows himself as the most excellent creator, not only can he work with what he makes, but can work with what he does not make. This is the case with sin and suffering; God creates healing out of the very things he is not responsible for, out of what he did not create. For who can make anything that God cannot reorient back to himself?
This is what the Psalmist is trying to remind the Israelites when he asks, “Do not forget the works of the Lord!” Are you challenged today? Remember the times God has supported you through hardship! Are you dying today? Remember the times God has given you strength and nourished your life! Are you faithful to God today? Remember the times when you rejected him but he did not abandon you! Remember that your God is the only god, no other thing can have victory over him; him who wins victory without destroying his enemy, who can grace even his enemy to make his own purposes come to fruition.
St. Paul also presents us with paradox in the famous Christ Hymn. To save us from human weakness, God becomes human. God empties himself of glory in order to fill the world with that glory. In order to gives us life, Christ Jesus dies. He who by all rights could have come as judge of the world is instead killed. The judge offers himself up to God; his judgment of the world is that it shall be loved by him, taken up into his life. We see again and again and most fully in Jesus how great is the power of the love of God and the method of the creator not to punish or purge or expunge, but to re-orient. No thing is beyond his love to re-orient back to himself. God does not destroy our humanity in order to create a perfect creature; he unites it to himself, drawing it back into his love definitively in Jesus Christ.
There is a striking connection between Numbers 11:10-15 – when Moses complains about the stubbornness of the people in the desert – and Luke 22: 39-46, when Jesus prays in the garden before he is killed. In Numbers, the people beg for meat, they are tired of manna. Moses laments his situation, how can he provide for the people what they desire? Christ also laments his situation, he is shocked by the thought of the suffering he will face. Yet, unlike Moses, Christ is the bread and the meat – the flesh – that the people need for life. Christ will give up his own life in order to provide his own body as the food that humanity needs and desires.
This is good to keep in mind this Sunday. It reminds us of the paradox of what we do at mass. This paradox makes us reverent and joyful, silent and full of praise, sinners and children of God. What is it that we do at the altar? Is not the altar the cross upon which Christ offers his body and blood for us and to us so that we might live? To exalt the cross is to exalt the altar. But the exaltation of the cross and the altar – both places of death and destruction – is not to praise either death or destruction. Instead it is to recognize the glory of God, to praise the wisdom of God; God who does not need to destroy in order to make new, but can re-orient all things back to himself through his love.