December 8, 2006

Seeking the Face of the Lord

If joined to Christ, human suffering opens the way to human love

As we tend to romanticize the Nativity of Jesus in anticipation of our Christmas celebrations, we might ponder the simple fact that in becoming human like us, Jesus became vulnerable to physical weakness, human illness and disabilities.

We might also do well to think about how people who are sick or somehow severely disabled or perhaps deeply troubled by depression or other emotional problems experience Advent and Christmas.

They may find it difficult to embrace the “Christmas spirit” the way most folks do. Somehow, I think the experience of the sick at holiday time may be more in tune with the miracle of the Incarnation.

Recently, I came across a little book, Let Me Go to the Father’s House, published by Pauline Books and Media. It features Pope John Paul II’s strength in weakness. The authors are Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the pope’s longtime secretary and friend, his personal physician and the vicar general of Vatican City.

It is not surprising that a review of the late Holy Father’s life, his preaching and writings reveal an impressive and extensive focus on the sick, the elderly, the handicapped and the helpless.

A substantial part of the meaning of the Incarnation of Christ has to do with weakness and suffering. It provides an opportunity for understanding by people who are ill.

In one of his talks in 1982, Pope John Paul said: “The sick, the elderly, the handicapped, and the infirm teach us that weakness is a creative part of human life and that suffering can be accepted without the loss of dignity … the wisdom of Christ and the power of Christ are visible in the weakness of those who participate in his sufferings” (p. 15-16).

A substantial part of the meaning of suffering embraced by the ill, the elderly and the emotionally disabled among us is the fact that through their sacrifices the whole Church is strengthened, and the witness of truth and love goes out to the whole world.

In his powerful letter on “ The Christian Meaning of Human Suffering” (Salvifici Doloris), John Paul wrote that the person in the wheelchair is just as necessary for the world as the engineers who build bridges, houses or spacecrafts. The suffering person “is serving, like Christ, the salvation of his brothers and sisters. Therefore he is carrying out an irreplaceable service. In the Body of Christ, which is ceaselessly born of the cross of the Redeemer, it is precisely suffering permeated by the spirit of Christ’s sacrifice that is the irreplaceable mediator and author of the good things which are indispensable for the world’s salvation. It is suffering more than anything else which clears the way for the grace which transforms human souls. Suffering, more than anything else, makes present in the history of humanity the powers of Redemption” (Salvifici Doloris, #27).

Pope John Paul spoke of suffering as a “vocation.” He asserted that the suffering Christ addresses every suffering person with the words “Follow me!”

He reminded us that as a suffering person gradually unites one’s own cross with that of Jesus, he or she discovers the deepest meaning of suffering and transforms it into a creative force. Together, they save the world. In this way, suffering makes possible a special kind of contact with God and becomes prayer (cf. Let Me Go, p. 18-19).

In his letter on suffering, the late Holy Father focuses suffering as a visitation from God, granted in order “to give birth to works of love toward neighbor, in order to transform the whole of human civilization into a civilization of love” (#30).

What does all of this have to do with Advent and the coming of Christmas 2006? The life and teaching of Pope John Paul II reminds us that, if joined to Christ, the world of human suffering opens the way to the world of human love. The full impact, the reality of the birth of Jesus as God becoming man, was to establish a new world order in which a civilization of love might take form.

I suggest that a meditation on the realism of the human dimension of Christ’s Incarnation is a rich resource for our Advent prayer. This is especially true for those among us who identify with Christ’s embrace of human suffering with us and for us in a particular way. But it is not only true for the sick.

An intentional part of the “Christmas spirit” is our shared responsibility to be with our infirm, elderly and disabled “neighbors.” It is not right “to pass them by,” the pope taught.

In the spirit of Christmas giving, in the spirit of generous sacrifice, we should take upon ourselves a part of their burden.

No one should carry his or her infirmity to the crib of Jesus alone. †

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