Whenever great tragedy bears down upon us, we often react first with emotion, then logic. Once our physiology settles and our mental acuity returns, our second step is always to move into the realm of analysis. Why has this happened? Whose fault is it? How could it have been prevented?
Who among us hasn’t asked such questions in light of the present coronavirus pandemic?
On the Christian view, however, to rest solely with a logical reading of evil is to stop short of complete understanding. To stop at logic is to cheat oneself of the whole story. For Christians, who believe that God is at work in the world always and everywhere, there is ever something more profound going on than that which can be perceived by reason alone. For the Christian, there is always a mystical reading of evil, a deeper layer of explanation and understanding anchored in the cross of Christ, which offers real hope for what is to come.
Victory on the Cross
Let’s be brutally honest. Men have always been capable of great malevolence toward the good and the innocent, and have proven it generation after generation. In that sense, there is not much mystery to the fact that Jesus—who had no faults, who surrounded himself by the greatest of sinners, who pulled no punches when it came to admonishing the crooked and powerful of his time, and who implied his own kingship —eventually provoked the jealousy and hatred of men (see John 18:36-38).
The real mystery is this: that through the “worst of all evils” God defeated death: dying he destroyed our death. Christ was able to bring the greatest good for humanity out of the greatest evil humanity could ever commit—namely, the murder of God. Like water into wine, he turned his suffering into salvation.
Now, there’s a tradition that angels are jealous of humans because they, being bodily creatures, can suffer in a way that angels cannot. The point is not that angels desire to suffer for suffering’s sake. The point is that man’s capacity to suffer lovingly gives him the opportunity to participate in Christ’s action of redemption. To be sure, the angels of hell suffer spiritually. But man, unlike any of the angels, can suffer for the sake of others. He can “join” his sufferings to Christ and, by doing so, bring grace into the lives of those whom he loves.
Through Him, With Him
St. Paul says something that sounds rather shocking to the Colossians. He writes, “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24). Does he mean that something was insufficient about Christ’s suffering? Not at all.
Only in the sense that we can still participate here and now in Christ’s act of redemption, can it be said that Christ’s afflictions are lacking. Fr. Bernard Orchard helps us understand this passage in A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture: “[St. Paul’s sufferings] are the vehicle for conveying the Passion to the hearts and souls of men, and in this way they bring completeness to the Passion in an external way.”
St. Paul understood that although Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient in itself, it was still possible for us to join ourselves spiritually to Christ, becoming “little saviors” as members of the Church—his Mystical Body (Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 12:12-26). Remember St. Joan of Arc’s words: “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter.”
So, when we suffer with Christ, we suffer in and through Christ. Doing so, we are joined to the saving mission of our Savior. He didn’t have to make this possible. He doesn’t need us to redeem the world. But God wants to offer us everything: even the ability to convert the worst of evils in our own lives into acts of charity and salvation (2 Pet. 1:4). Knowing this, St. Paul rejoiced in his sufferings (Col. 1:24).
What Makes All the Difference
In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul tells us that his preaching centers on Christ crucified (1 Cor. 1:23; 2:2). The crazy thing about this is that to his contemporaries such a thing was, on its face, absurd. For the message about the cross, says the Apostle Paul, is foolishness to many (1 Cor. 1:24). To the Jews who believed in a triumphant Messiah, the message of the crucified Lord was a scandal. To the Romans, worshiping the crucified Christ was utter foolishness.
See, every victim of Roman crucifixion (what Cicero called “that most cruel and disgusting penalty”) hung publicly on the cross accused, naked, and dying. There was nothing glorious about it. It was pure humiliation. So to worship a failed Jewish leader whose life came to an end on a Roman cross was complete nonsense.
And yet—the Christians worshiped this Christ! But why?
Not because he was crucified. No; if he would have stayed in the grave, that would make him just one more failed “Messiah” (scholars tell us there were many false messiahs in Jesus’ time). What converted the death of Jesus Christ into victory was his Resurrection! Without the Resurrection, there is no Good News, there is no sacrifice, there is no salvation (1 Cor. 15:17). There is only an execution.
Rising to the Occasion
In one of the final chapters of his book He Leadeth Me, Fr. Walter Ciszek, a survivor of the Soviet Gulag, contemplates “the fear of death.” Sounds dark. But this chapter is one of joyful hope. For in it, though he meditates deeply on Jesus’ Passion, he refers even more frequently the Resurrection of Christ. Fr. Ciszek writes:
If the Good News of Christianity is anything new, it is this: that death has no hidden terror, has no mystery, is not something man must fear. It is not the end of life, of the soul, of the person. Christ’s death on Calvary was not the central act of salvation, but his death and resurrection; it was the resurrection that completed his victory over sin and death.
He drives home the fact that all this talk of a dying and rising God from Nazareth is no invented myth, no far-fetched legend. The Resurrection of Jesus really happened. It’s a fact of history, in all its grittiness and glory. The Resurrection of Jesus, writes Fr. Ciszek, was “meant to remove mankind’s last doubts, last fears, about the nature of death. For the resurrection was a fact, a fact as certain and as sure as death itself, and it meant that death held no victory over men, that life beyond death is a certainty and not just a human hope or fable.”
Suffering and death without the reality of the cross and Resurrection would make this life unbearable. “It is wonderful to be alive inasmuch as our true life is the life beyond,” once wrote Pier Giorgio Frassati, “otherwise who could bear the burden of this life, if there were not a prize for suffering, an eternal joy?” Given the prominence and inevitability of suffering that comes with human existence, one cannot help but think he’s right.
Not even the purest human logic can save us from the pains of evil. But Christ can, and he did. He did die and he did rise from the dead, inaugurating a Resurrection event that all—even you and I—will one day be a part of. His victory was the beginning of the end. His rising in the past is a sign and proof of our rising that is still to come.
So, logically, we Christians have every reason to be hopeful.
Evil—be it in the form of a pandemic, or persecution, or the devil, or whatever—can and will continue to strike at us. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s all just a bunch of desperate flailing. Evil strikes in vain. Victory is ours. For as Archbishop Sheen once said, evil may have its hour, but God will have his day.