We have seen that Christ, identifying himself with humanity in all that is ours, becomes the “littlest of the least,” suffering and rejoicing, loving and being loved, living and dying and rising, with us and for us, so that, in him, we may live unto the fullness of life that is his in the bosom of the Trinity. This is the “great exchange,” the admirabile commercium, in which the divine shares in all that is human so that humanity may share in all that is divine. As the Fathers of the Church said so many times, in so many ways, and with such enthusiasm, “The Son of God became the Son of man, so that sons of men might become sons of God,” or again, “God became man so than man might become God.” What a marvelous exchange, what a blessed and undeserved gift, that the eternal Son of the Father, united with him in the endless bliss of the divine life, would come to a race enslaved to sin and destined to die, and would take our death as his own so that, through it, he could open up the path to endless life…to his own endless life with the Father and the Holy Spirit!
This is the trajectory of definitive redemption, which has already gripped our humanity—indeed our whole universe—in its entirety, and has reached fulfillment in the Risen Christ, and in his Mother, who was assumed into heaven with him, and which is at work in each one of us, gradually preparing us for the same destiny which shall be fulfilled in us too at the end of time. Perhaps we wish that God would have done everything all at once, that he would have given redemption “ready-made” and complete from the outset, that he would have instantaneously eradicated pain, suffering, and death, have annihilated all traces of evil in the world and taken away the human freedom that commits such evil. But such is not God’s way. It is not the way of infinite tenderness, of compassionate mercy, of the healing Physician. Rather, out of his boundless respect for human freedom and the dignity that he has given to us as persons—and not willing to accomplish anything within us without our “yes” of acquiescence and cooperation—he gives us the grace of redemption as a process of incorporation into the life that he has gained for us.
Yes, redemption has been fully and definitively accomplished in Christ. The world has been truly saved from the forces of evil, these forces which assaulted Jesus in his Passion and were conquered in the boundless victory of his undying Love. But our participation in this mystery, the gradual healing and renewal of human persons, of the whole human family, and indeed of the entire cosmos, is a process that unfolds only little by little over time, guided by God in Christ and through the Church, until it reaches fullness at Christ’s second coming. Then, when he returns at the fulfillment of history, all things shall share fully in the Lord’s own Resurrection, and shall taste to the full the joy of definitive redemption and the everlasting consummation of intimacy in the innermost life of the Trinity.
In the meantime, we do not find God’s redemption in fleeing from what is real, in denying the richness and depth of our historical experience. For example, we do not find God in the denial of suffering, wishing that he would have instantaneously done away with suffering, and reducing or fleeing from it as much as we can, even to the point of “mercy killing” at the point of death. Rather, we find redemption precisely at the heart of our human experience, of our human longings, desires, fears, needs, and in all the facets of what it means to be a human within this world. For it is here that Christ has wedded himself to us, and here that he communicates to us the renewing and transfiguring energies of divine grace, of the outpoured life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Let me give only one example: namely, precisely that of the experience of suffering and death.
We all have a deeply natural and ingrained fear of suffering and death. This is not only because these experiences are unpleasant, because they “go against the grain” of our desire to experience pleasure, ease, facility in life and love and relationship, but also because they seem to cut right across the heart of our longing for true happiness: for the fulfillment of our being in contact with reality. We wish to live forever, in all the vigor of youth, as it were. We wish to reach out and touch the stars, to let our being expand on contact with the gift of what is real, and to exult on this contact. But suffering—whether physical, emotional, moral, or spiritual—puts a damper on this movement. It seems to constrain, limit, suffocate, and narrow. We were made to be expansive, but we have become narrow and limited.
We can acknowledge, in fact (without trying to be exhaustive), four dimensions to suffering. 1) Suffering is in large part our very experience of our creaturely limitations, intensified and hardened by sin. It is the pain of reaching out for the fulfillment of a desire and finding it frustrated because of our own limitation or the limitations of the world in which we live. 2) As perhaps the deepest aspect of this “limitation,” suffering is our incapacity to be all that we were meant to be. It is the awareness, both felt and acknowledged, that I am not fully alive, fully all that my nature promises to be or that my heart aspires to be. It is the awareness that I am flawed, broken, imperfect, a broken masterpiece that, at least in my darkest moments, seems to be nothing but a piece of trash worthy of being discarded. 3) Suffering is also, finally, the feeling of being assaulted, afflicted, or harmed in the integrity of our being—like a body being assaulted by cancer or traumatic wounds received in war or a car crash. He suffering becomes what we term most usually “pain,” and it also becomes fear. Here we feel attacked in the very foundations of our humanity by a force that not only causes physical pain—though this in itself can be almost overwhelming and carries with it all kinds of psychological and spiritual effects—but also causes a sense of loss in our very sense of self and of our human nature and life in this world.
Finally, we can trace the lines of suffering back even deeper: 4) The deepest form of suffering is precisely that of aloneness, of the agonizing awareness of ruptured relationship. The fear of the destruction of my own being, in fact, when understood most deeply, is but a facet of this fear of ultimate aloneness. To lose myself and to lose another. These are both together the root of the existential fear that lies underneath all other fears. For at the foundation of all human conscious existence, of the fabric of the subjective life of the “I,” is not only the awareness of my own self as “I,” but of others as “You,” and particularly of God as the divine “You.” Indeed, I am aware that my “I” cannot subsist in itself apart from the loving and sustaining gaze of an ultimate “You,” the You of God who loves me into existence at each moment, and whose love makes me to be the very unique person who I am. So to lose him is to lose me. To turn away from him and to collapse upon myself is also to lose myself. But, on the other hand, to lose myself, to dissolve in my unique being in its capacity to understand truth, to choose and act in love, is to lose the capacity to be in contact with him. Both the loss of self and the loss of God lead to the rupture of relationship and to the collapse of identity.
I and You are the two poles of life, of blessedness, of joy—for they are the poles of true intimacy which is the fulfillment of our existence. And thus they are also the poles of which deepest suffering is made, when either the I or the You is called into question, obscured, or lost. To lose myself before God is to lose my own role in this dialogue of relationship, to be annihilated as the partner of the divine (and this is why nirvana or any other philosophy that sees the annihilation or absorption of the unique person into the divine as an ideal is not only wrong but ultimately harmful). But even more fundamentally, to lose the divine You is to lose the very foundations of my own being and identity, to become lost from what it really means to be me, and thus also to lose the grounding of authentic relationship with all other things that exist.
Let us bring these reflections full circle. The main point is this: Christ did not come to redeem us, first, from suffering and death, but through suffering and death. He came to unite himself to us in our experience of limitation, of creaturely poverty, of the pain of a world marked by suffering and sin, and ending in the dissolution of human life in death. And through uniting himself to us here, he has ultimately eradicated that deepest form of suffering: the dissolution of relationship, the loss of I and You. He has come to us in our loneliness, in our lostness, to reveal to us who we truly are in the loving eyes of God: Jesus Christ incarnate is the eyes of God upon us in our misery and sin, shining forth as light in the darkness and life into death. And he has come to reveal to us who God is, the God who is Abba, Father, eternal Love who has created us out of pure, gratuitous generosity to be his children and partakers in his life, through the gift of the eternal Son and the Spirit of Love.
Yes, and through this presence of the divine Love with us in all the intricacies of our experience, this experience has been not only redeemed, but has also become redemptive. In other words, the path of suffering and death is a path of healing and transfiguration, the manner of our participation in the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. What is effected in us gratuitously, sacramentally in Baptism is ultimately fulfilled in death: our union with the redemptive surrender of Jesus into the hands of his eternal Father, such that he passes across the boundary caused by sin—the boundary most fully expressed in death—and into the endless life of restored intimacy at the heart of the Trinity. He has bestowed this participation upon us without any merit of our own, without even any need for our own activity: it is simply bestowed upon us as the free gift of adoption into the inner life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And yet this gift also seeks to so totally pervade all the energies of our humanity, and to so totally transform us in God’s likeness, that our every thought, feeling, choice, and action shares in his own way of living and loving for all eternity, this way of living and loving made incarnate in this world in the humanity of Jesus Christ.
And such a process of transformation meets us in all of life and in its every moment, such that everything becomes a sacrament of God’s presence to us, and a means of our deepening surrender back into his welcoming embrace. In all the radiance of created beauty, in all thought and contemplation of the meaning of reality, in all human relationships, in all meaningful, productive, and creative activity, and in a special way in the path of suffering and weakness that leads to the definitive surrender of death, God prepares us for the ultimate fullness of union with him that awaits us at the end of our life.
The Son of God has joined us in our suffering and death, making it a pure gift of Eucharistic Love unto the endless life of perfect intimacy, far beyond any threat of suffering and death. “If we have died with Christ, we shall also live with him” (Rom 6:8). He has joined us in death to open up the path of life; and as we join him in death, or more accurately, in the total gift of love that conquers and transforms death, we join him in the place of endless life. This is true both sacramentally and existentially; it is true in our union with God in the Sacraments, and it is true in all the details of our life and relationships. It is true mystically: in other words, in our communion with Jesus Christ at the heart of his Paschal Mystery through grace, and, at the heart of the Paschal Mystery, our entrance into the very uncreated life of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.