Today we begin the celebration of Holy Week, a very special time when we reflect on the events that lead us through the death and resurrection of Jesus; events which changed the course of history forever. Because of these events we can now go to heaven when we die. It is that simple.
We begin with a short account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, hailed by the people as a great prophet. They threw down palm branches in front of him and shouted ‘Hosanna! Blessings on him who comes in the name of the Lord.’ Yet within a few days everything changed. He was betrayed for money, illegally tried, then tortured and killed. Today we read the full account of his passion. It is the main focus of our mass.
Even though it is a sad event that we remember, it is also a day of celebration, because what we remember is the wonderful event that made it possible for us to experience the eternal life after this one. That is so important, because if we couldn’t hope for a better life after this one, it would be very hard to keep going a lot of the time. In one of his letters to the Christians in Corinth, St. Paul wrote, ‘If our faith in Christ has been for this life only, then of all people we are the most to be pitied.’ If we think that this life is what it’s all about, we have completely missed the point. The truth is that we are preparing for something wonderful that is waiting for us, should we choose it.
Everyone suffers, as we know; there are no exceptions. Probably one of the most difficult things for any of us to experience when we are suffering, is the sense that we have been abandoned by everyone. But even if everyone else seems to abandon us, at least we can always turn to God. But where do we turn if God disappears too? There is nowhere left to go. This is the worst kind of suffering, verging on despair. God never abandons us, but sometimes we may feel that He has.
Just before Jesus’ death on the cross, he cries out: ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ What does this mean? It is the beginning of Psalm 22 which is a Psalm that ends in victory, but it can also be understood in a different way. It seems to point out that even Jesus felt completely abandoned by the Father. He felt totally alone.
Why would God the Father hide himself from Jesus at the time when Jesus most needed to know He was there? Perhaps it was so that Jesus could experience this worst kind of suffering, the suffering of believing that you have been abandoned even by God. By experiencing this, Jesus is brought to the farthest extreme of suffering. After this there is no suffering that he has not experienced and this means that he can understand us in every kind of suffering we go through, even the feeling of being abandoned by God, because he has been there. We can no longer say, ‘You don’t know what it’s like!’ because he does.
Even though sometimes we may feel we have been abandoned by God, in fact we have not. But sometimes God allows us to go through this for reasons only known to God. It seems to be part of what forms us, even though it is very difficult and we recoil from it. Many of the saints went through this feeling of abandonment, including Mother Teresa. Here is something from her own writings to her spiritual director:
Now Father—since 49 or 50 this terrible sense of loss—this untold darkness—this loneliness—this continual longing for God—which gives me that pain deep down in my heart.—Darkness is such that I really do not see—neither with my mind nor with my reason.—The place of God in my soul is blank.—There is no God in me.—When the pain of longing is so great—I just long & long for God—and then it is that I feel—He does not want me—He is not there.—...God does not want me.—Sometimes—I just hear my own heart cry out—‘My God’ and nothing else comes.—The torture and pain I can’t explain.—p1.
—Mother Teresa: Come be my Light, (edit.) Brian Kolodiejchuk, London: Rider Books, 2007.
That is not what you expect to hear from someone like Mother Teresa, who was such a light of hope for so many people, yet God allowed her to go through this darkness too.
One of the hardest aspects of suffering is that we can see no point to it. It just seems pointless and cruel. If we understood that it had a particular purpose, that would make it easier, but we usually don’t. But in God’s overall plan, everything we go through can serve a purpose, sometimes bringing families closer together, or helping people grow in their faith. But sometimes we will only see that later on when we look back. At the time it just seems meaningless and we often end up crying out in anger, ‘My God, why are you doing this to me?’
Another difficulty is that we feel so helpless. We cannot stop the suffering. How many people would have gladly exchanged places with someone they love who is suffering. Not being able to do anything about their loved one’s suffering is a martyrdom in itself. That is when we turn and look at the cross. It reminds us that this is also what Jesus went through; the feeling of total abandonment by God the Father, at the time when he needed him most. When you feel this way, focus on the cross. Hold a crucifix in your hands if you can and remember that Jesus went through the same suffering. That is when we ask Jesus for the grace to keep going, even though we do not understand.
Finally, I want to mention Our Lady. She also was at the foot of the cross. Years before she had been told by the angel Gabriel that Jesus would be great and would reign forever as king. He would be called Son of the Most-High God. What had happened to all these promises now, as she watched Jesus come to the end of his life before her eyes? Although Mary must have suffered terribly with all she had to witness, she didn’t give up hope. She believed that what God had said would come true and she hoped and believed even without understanding. God invites us to do the same; to hope even when we don’t understand. To trust that in the end it will make sense.
The end of Psalm 22, which begins with the cry of abandonment, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ ends with the following words:
The Lord reigns, the ruler of nations.
Before him all the prosperous of the earth will bow down,
Before him will bow all who go down to the dust.
And my soul will live for him, my children will serve him;
People will proclaim the Lord to generations still to come,
His righteousness to a people yet unborn.
These things the Lord has done. (Ps 22:28-31)