In addition to the physical pain that suffering brings, suffering is a nuisance that blocks us from what we really want to do for ourselves, our families and friends and keeps us from our own work. Suffering wastes our time. Rather than helping others, we need care ourselves. It is hard to see anything positive in suffering.
The second reading for this Sunday, from the Letter to the Colossians 1:24-28, takes a different view of suffering: “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake” (Col 1:24). What possible benefit could one person’s sufferings be for anyone else?
Christ’s sufferings were for His body but a new idea arises in this passage: we are so closely united with other believers that our sufferings also affect others through grace. Paul asserts: “In my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of His body which is the Church” (Col 1:24).
Paul understood the Christian community as a body, of which Christ was the head. Thomas describes this relationship: “We should understand that Christ and the Church are one mystical person, whose head is Christ, and whose body is all the just, for every just person is a member of this head: ‘individually members’” (1 Cor. 12:27).
This passage seems to indicate that something is missing from Christ’s salvific self-offering. St. Thomas Aquinas assures us: “The blood of Christ is sufficient to redeem many worlds.” The First Letter of John states: “He is the expiation for our sins and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 Jn 2:2). If Christ has already made full expiation, how can we “make up what is lacking”?
According to Thomas, believers are so joined to Christ that, spiritually, we are one person. Through this union with Christ, our sufferings are given salvific value for others.
However, we might object, Christ’s sufferings were His gift to His Father as His Son, from whom grace has been poured forth upon us. We often bear our sufferings, in a begrudged way. Jesus is the holy one from whose actions grace flows. But this is certainly not true of us.
It is true that our actions don’t cause grace for ourselves or others as our actions alone. However, when our actions are united with Christ, those actions are the effect of grace. Thomas explains in his Summa Theologiae: “This movement is not the cause of grace, but the effect; hence the whole operation pertains to grace” (1a.2ae. 111, 2, ad 2). This is similar to the way that we pray for others not because we deserve to be heard in ourselves but through our union with Jesus.
Our sufferings have value not principally because of us but because we are joined with Christ. Through our union with Christ, our stories are the continuation of His story. He lives with us in our story and our sufferings are joined with His. Thomas explains: “… for what was lacking was that, just as Christ had suffered in His own body, so He should also suffer in Paul, His member, and in similar ways in others.”
Just as Christ’s sufferings were for our sake, our sufferings are, as Thomas explains, “for the sake of His body, which is the Church that was to be redeemed by Christ.”
In one way, the sufferings of good people help others through their example, as Thomas grants: “All the saints suffer for the Church, which receives strength from their example.” In another sense, the holy ones even “merit” for us by the grace of God: “For while the merits of Christ, the head, are infinite, each saint displays some merits in a limited degree.”
Paul often brought sufferings upon himself through his ministry: “For this I toil, striving with all the energy which He mightily inspires in me” (Col 1:29). The Second Letter to Timothy declares: “Take your share of suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 2:3); and “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4.7).
Paul was convinced that his ministry had been given to him by God: “I am a minister in accordance with God’s stewardship given to me to bring to completion for you the word of God, the mystery hidden from ages past and generations past” (Col 1:25).
According to Paul, this “mystery” was previously “hidden” but now God desired that it be announced. The Letter to the Ephesians also speaks of “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God” (Eph 3:9).
The “mystery” was not so much an idea as a presence. The Son of God taking our flesh opened up the “mystery,” the plan originally “hidden.” Paul announces, “But now it has been manifested to His holy ones, to whom God chose to make known the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; it is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:26-27).
Thomas proposes that Paul could say: “I am to show that the word of God has been fulfilled, that is, God’s dispensation and plan and promise concerning the Incarnation of the Word of God.”
Why does Thomas single out the Incarnation when the death and Resurrection of Jesus are essential elements in God’s plan? The Incarnation is the breakthrough that changes God’s way of relating to us: in His Son’s taking our own flesh, God is with us.
The idea that the divine would be manifested in our flesh was entirely unheard of by the prophets and was entirely contrary to prevailing philosophy. Thomas recalls St. Augustine’s observation, that although the works of Plato indicate some things about the Word, “yet none could know that the Word was made flesh.” For the philosophers, the “Logos” or “Word,” was entirely spiritual and unrelated to human material existence.
Thomas describes this revelation as “this time of grace,” noting Paul’s words: “Behold now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2). By analogy, every time the Word is proclaimed is a “time of grace.”
Why did God manifest the mystery to some as a “grace” or gift? All of God’s interventions in our lives are gifts: The Gospel of John declares: ““All that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you” (Jn 15:15).
Every insight that draws us to God is a gift from God. We do not deserve God’s gift more than others. Every time our hearts are moved by God, it is a gift. God give His grace because He is generous. God continues “to make known … the riches of this mystery.”
Thomas declares: “This mystery, which is Christ, i.e., which we obtain through Christ, is the hope of glory.” Paul declared, “Him, we proclaim…” (Col 1:28). Jesus charged His disciples: ““Teach all nations” (Mt 28:19). The author of the First Letter of John states: “That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you” (1 Jn 1:1).
Thomas remarks that Paul’s method was “to teach the truth and to refute what is false… that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col 1:28). Jesus declared, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). Thomas recognizes that all are not ‘perfect,” however, “it should be the goal of the preacher.”
Thomas considers two stages of perfection. The first is that “one not allow into his heart anything opposed to God”: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Mt 22:37). The second stage is “to give up even those things that are lawful; and this kind of perfection goes beyond what is required.”
Thomas reflects: “Paul does this with all the energy, ‘the grace of God is with me’ (1 Cor. 15:10), which he inspires within me, because God does this in me mightily, i.e., that is, by giving me the might or power.” Jesus promised His disciples that they would be “clothed with power from on high” (Lk 24:49).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
The quotations from St. Thomas’ Commentary on the Letter to the Colossians are taken from the website: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/