Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Should we emphasize Christ's suffering or his resurrection?

A friend of mine a few days ago asked if I believe it's accurate to say that Catholics focus on Christ's suffering and death while Protestants focus on the Resurrection. At first I somewhat agreed with him, but I later had more time to think about it and put it into perspective and I developed a few thoughts on the issue.

I think it would be more accurate to say that Catholics do focus on the suffering and death of Christ, whereas this element of Christ's life is overshadowed in Protestant thinking by his resurrection, which they focus on almost exclusively. Of course this will vary from group to group within Protestantism.

Catholic spirituality places a lot of emphasis on Christ's suffering. This can be seen by our devotions. The Stations of the Cross give a 14-step analysis of Christ's trial, suffering, and death of the cross. This was introduced by St. Francis of Assisi. Around this time, around 800 years ago, more graphic representations of Christ's crucifixion became common. Francis of Assisi was the first person to receive the stigmata, which are the wounds of Christ. The Mass, the main worship of Catholics, is called a sacrifice. We present Christ's body and blood to be eaten by the Christian community, just as Christ did at the Last Supper. We pray the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, which recount five major events of Christ's suffering, and are: 1) His agony in the garden of Gethsemene, 2) Scourging at the pillar, 3) Crowning with Thorns, 4) Carrying the Cross, 5) Crucifixion and death on the cross. We devote an entire season called Lent to align ourselves to the suffering of Christ and be freed from our material desires. Fridays of the year are designated as sacrificial days. In the past, this meant not eating meat on Fridays, but now this can be substituted by another act of penance. There are many more examples of the centrality of Christ's suffering in our theology.

But this emphasis on Christ's Passion is not unnatural, and no devotion will ever go further in the portrayal of Christ's suffering than the amount he actually suffered. Christ suffered more than any person in history, not merely because of the brutal scourging and crucifixion, but because he bore our sins and became the paschal sacrifice of humanity. We should be on our knees praising God for this each and every day.

We believe in Christ ON the cross. The cross without Christ is empty, barren, it does not accomplish our salvation. But our salvation was accomplished by Christ ON the cross. This is where Earth was united with Heaven. Many people say they have an empty cross because Christ conquered death and that he rose from the dead and that he is not on the cross anymore. But if you are showing an empty cross to indicate that Jesus is not on the cross, it would be more accurate to show an empty tomb because that's where Jesus rose from the dead. The point of the crucifix and cross as a symbol of our faith has always been that Christ died for our sins and the cross is where this was accomplished.

It is also important to remember how lovingly and fully we celebrate the Resurrection of Christ. Lent is 40 days (46 if you count Sundays), but the Easter Season is 50 days until Pentecost. We celebrate Advent, the preparation of Christmas, but of course, we also celebrate Christmas itself with much joy. We have the Sorrowful Mysteries as I mentioned above, but we also have the Joyful and Glorious mysteries. We call the Mass a sacrifice, but we also call it a celebration.

The reason for this is we believe suffering and joy are two sides of the same coin. When we suffer, we do not just do it to hurt ourselves, we do it to unite ourselves more fully with Christ. By doing so, we give up our attachments to worldly possessions and material satisfaction and become more aware of our relationship with God.

This reminds me of one of my favorite parts of the Passion of the Christ movie. Jesus has been scourged almost to death, his body is wounded beyond recognition from the sadistic treatment he has received, he is bloody, and now he is made to carry his cross. His can barely stand up and falls several times. His mother sees him and is overwhelmed with grief. She rushes to his side where is face down, on his knees, with his cross above him. He is coughing up blood. He says to his mother, "See, I make all things new". This was very powerful for me. Christ did not say "I am suffering a lot" or "I am defeated", but rather he is making all things new. We are washed with the blood of Christ. He is renewing the world. What we see as weakness, Christ sees as strength. What we see as suffering, Christ sees as redemption. Saints have often spoke of the paradox of the cross. As we often say at Mass, "In dying you destroyed our death, in rising you restored our life."

I could go on for many more pages, because this is the essence of our spirituality. But to summarize, I would say this: We cannot separate Christ's resurrection from his suffering and death on the cross, no more than we can separate his human and divine natures. Therefore to ask which we emphasis more is a false dicotomy. Celebrating one or the other exclusively would contradict the message of Christ. As Fr. John Corapi says, we cannot have the crown without the cross.

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