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(See the readings for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Sept. 16.)
Joni Earekson and her sister went out riding their horses to the Chesapeake Bay on July 30, 1967. When they got to the bay they decided to go for a swim. Tragically Joni misjudged the depth of the water. When she dove in she suffered a back injury that left her quadriplegic, paralyzed from her neck down.
As time went on Joni had to come to terms with the accident and her disability. She struggled with her faith as well. She was angry with God. In her prayer she demanded an answer: “How could you let this happen?” she asked. At times she found herself wishing she had not survived. As time went on Joni found strength through her weakness. She speaks of how God’s strength began to shine through her disability. She later became an accomplished author and speaker on dealing with disabilities in one’s life.
One key moment in her struggle with faith was a conversation with a good friend. Joni was lamenting her situation and her feeling isolated from God. “He does not understand. If he did why would he leave me like this?” The friend said: “Joni, Jesus does understand, he too was paralyzed. He was paralyzed on the cross. He could not move. The nails held him in place.”
Joni soon came to realize that God indeed was present to her in her suffering. Reflecting on this she later wrote: “God became incredibly close to me and eventually I understood that he loves me. I had no other identity but God, and gradually he became enough,” stated Joni. “I prayed for healing and truly believed it would come. The scriptures speak of our bodies ‘being glorified.’ Now I realize I will be healed; I’m just going through a 40 or 50 year delay, and God stays with me even through that.”
Joni had to deal with the question of suffering in a highly personal and extraordinary situation. Most people, however, have to deal with the same question at some point in their lives, albeit not in the same context. Sometimes the question comes up when we deal with an illness or injury, sometimes it comes up when we see a loved one suffer, sometimes a natural disaster or a horrible injustice will raise the question. As one grapples with the suffering, one naturally will feel isolated or alone.
Joni’s friend helped her to see that she was not alone, that God was right there with her in her suffering, in fact he shares in her suffering. Joni though her suffering was isolated, that God could not possibly understand her condition. It was the cross that helped her see that God was not far from her but right there with her in the bed, in the wheel chair, in the hospital, in the therapy room, in the car, in her home. Wherever she was and whatever pain she was experiencing, God was with her.
Jesus raises the question to his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter is the one who responds correctly, saying: “You are the Christ.” Jesus immediately explains that he will “suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days.” Peter immediately objects; in fact he “rebukes” Jesus for saying it. Peter, at this point, does not understand, he cannot comprehend what Jesus is saying. Not only is it abhorrent to him that his teacher, friend and mentor would speak like this; but also he cannot comprehend the Messiah or “Christ” would undergo this kind of suffering.
Perhaps Peter’s expectation of the Messiah was one who would deliver Israel from suffering, not endure suffering. Peter did not yet understand that it was only through suffering that the Messiah would indeed deliver his people. Peter as usual was strong in his response to Jesus — he rebuked him. Jesus was likewise strong in his response: “Get behind me Satan.”
Jesus says: “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” Jesus’ embrace of the cross is an embrace of human suffering. Every human being suffers, albeit to varying degrees. The suffering is part of the human condition for we live as imperfect but good beings in an imperfect but good world. God wants us to know that he not only understands the human condition but shares it. He is not distant from our suffering, he shares our suffering. He shares our pain.
Recognizing God’s presence in our suffering surely provides strength to deal with the pain, grief, sorrow, doubt, anxiety and isolation. However, Jesus did not suffer just so that we might know God is with us even in those situations. Jesus took on suffering so as to deliver us from it. He does this through the resurrection. His victory over suffering and death is manifest in his resurrection from the dead. He is alive.
The pain has passed and he is now alive. The nail marks remain but they are no longer associated with pain, torture and death; they are a sign of love, life and victory. The pain and suffering that we experience in life will come to an end and there will be a transformation. Jesus led the way for us. Where he has gone we hope to follow.
Joni Earekson was given a cross she did not expect nor want in life. The accident crippled her body and tried to take control of her life. Her liberation came when she realized that God was not distant from her suffering but right there with her. He understood. He understands.
Through her suffering Joni gradually came to a deeper faith and relationship with the God who loves her. When this happened, she did not run from her suffering, she embraced it and so accepted Jesus’ invitation to life: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.