Christians know the life of a disciple will not be easy. Christ did not mince words about this — telling his disciples they must take on life’s sufferings as in the form of capital punishment that would later be used to take his life: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23).
Making Sense of Suffering
How do Christians make sense of the crosses they bear? The question of why suffering exists finds its answer in Christ’s transformation of suffering through love. Christ’s cross makes sense of our own, hence the universal appeal of popular devotions like the Stations of the Cross.
The Stations of the Cross finds its roots with the Franciscans who helped rebuild the Christian sites of the Holy Land following the medieval Crusades. Given the prominence of Christ’s passion within Franciscan spirituality, the order encouraged pilgrims in Jerusalem to journey along Christ’s way to Calvary. While it began as a pious devotion, its enduring relevance in the Christian life, however, caused the devotion to spread. Over time, the pope gave Franciscans the prerogative to erect “stations” of the cross for popular devotion in parishes the world over. Eventually, the role of the Franciscans was eliminated, and yet it is hard to find a parish building or complex that does not have the Stations of the Cross.
The universal reality of suffering makes devotions inspiring meditation on the passion and death of Jesus particularly relevant in Christian life. Such prayer forms like the Stations of the Cross are popularized particularly in the season of Lent. They should not necessarily be restricted there alone, however, since the Stations of the Cross have become a primary opportunity for the faithful to learn the purpose of their crosses.
Through fostering communal celebration of the Stations of the Cross, priests have the privilege of accompanying their flocks in this understanding. Assisted by praying with the Stations of the Cross, the faithful enter into the experience of Christ and others — such as Pilate, Mary, Simon, Veronica, the women of Jerusalem or those who crucified the Lord. In this way, devotions like the Stations of the Cross assist the faithful in appropriating the fruits of Christian suffering.
It makes sense, then, that those who have “put on Christ,” becoming members of his body through baptism — a bond renewed and strengthened in each reception of holy Communion — should expect nothing less than a share in Christ’s own passion and cross. In light of Christ’s passion, it likewise makes sense to understand suffering’s purpose as rooted in love. “If you really want to love Jesus,” St. Gemma Galgani said, “first learn to suffer, because suffering teaches you to love.”
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). God is love, and love is the source of all that is. “Love is also,” Pope St. John Paul II wrote in his encyclical on suffering, Salvifici Doloris, “the fullest source of the answer to the question of the meaning of suffering. This answer has been given by God to man in the Cross of Jesus Christ” (No. 13). Out of love, Christ gave of himself completely, even unto death — handing over his spirit out of obedience to the Father’s will (see Lk 23:46).
Christ’s own suffering and death has untold value and immense purpose — whereby God bought us back from the slavery of sin and death. So, too, does ours, because, as St. John Paul II described it, “each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ” (Salvifici Doloris, No. 19). Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen wrote: “The great tragedy of the world is not what people suffer, but how much they miss when they suffer. Nothing is quite as depressing as wasted pain, agony without an ultimate meaning or purpose.” The Stations of the Cross make real every imaginable aspect of human suffering that was on full display at Christ’s passion. And they teach us to see the fruit of suffering.
Suffering with Christ
On his way to Calvary, Christ experienced the sufferings ordinary men and women experience every day throughout the world. He showed not only how to deal with them, but through the power of love how to transform suffering’s destructive power into something life-giving. In Christ’s passion and death, St. John Paul II wrote that Jesus “has taken upon himself the physical and moral sufferings of the people of all times, so that in love they may find the salvific meaning of their sorrow and valid answers to all of their questions” (Salvifici Doloris, No. 31).
Meditating on the Stations of the Cross exposes Christ’s suffering heart — “sorrowful even to death” (Mk 14:34). In his condemnation to death, Christ teaches that we have the freedom to accept life’s sorrows. He does not let condemnation be levied upon him, but rather he chooses it out of love. Taking up his cross, Christ models how to accept suffering as an act of love in obedience to God’s will.
Christ falls three times on the way to Calvary. The sufferings due to sin in our lives continually cause failure. In falling himself, Christ shows that, despite suffering’s tendency to bring us down, discouragement can be overcome by dependence on God’s grace. Christ teaches us how to persevere through the failure and exhaustion through which our suffering inevitably leads and be of one heart and mind in pursuit of the Father’s will. Such is redemptive suffering — as the old saying goes, “no pain, no gain.”
Christ’s way to Calvary illustrates, too, how God graces us with models of love in the midst of our suffering. But like Christ, we must be attentive and receptive to them. The compassion, cooperation and generosity of others — such as Christ experienced in the fourth, fifth and sixth stations — are examples of how love is returned to love. And when unburdened by our own sufferings, through love, each of us can be channels of God’s love through service, like Mary, Simon and Veronica. “In the face of evil, suffering and sin, the only response possible for a disciple of Jesus is the gift of self, even of one’s own life, in imitation of Christ; it is the attitude of service,” Pope Francis said during World Youth Day in Poland in 2016.
Since life’s road must pass by way of Calvary, this journey of love ultimately entails that we strip ourselves of all that keeps us from God and his will. At the end of his road to Calvary, Christ shows that abandoning ourselves to the hands of providence comes with detachment from all earthly power, pleasure, wealth and honor. The Christian must be unhesitant to cast aside anything necessary to advance the kingdom of God. In this way suffering is a gift that enables us to focus on the new life in Christ that awaits believers. Through the pain of suffering we gain the joy of heaven itself — eternal happiness with God — the gates to which Christ opened for “the many.”
Rooted in Love
In meditating on Christ’s passion and death, through devotions like the Stations of the Cross, comes the realization that life’s sufferings can be joined to Christ’s — by which one learns that love forms suffering’s foundation. “The road is narrow,” St. John of the Cross said. “He who wishes to travel it more easily must cast off all things and use the cross as his cane. In other words, he must be truly resolved to suffer willingly for the love of God in all things.”
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, weeks before he was elected pope following the death of Pope John Paul II, referenced this when he said that Jesus not only taught us how to pray the Stations of the Cross, but also their meaning. “The Way of the Cross is the path of losing ourselves,” he said, “the path of true love.” Suffering expresses love’s total self-emptying required of the disciple. “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Lk 9:24).
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of Simply Catholic. Follow him on Twitter@HeinleinMichael. This article was originally published in The Priest magazine.