In our second reading, St. Paul lays out for us one of the great mysteries of the faith. How can Our Lord's death on the Cross be both a sign of faith in God and part of His wisdom? When we understand this mystery, we can see how our suffering on Earth can share in Our Lord's suffering on the Cross.
When we read through the Gospels, we see many who come to Our Lord looking for signs and miracles. In fact, today's passage tells us that “many began to believe in his name when they saw the signs he was doing.” They believed that if He could perform these great signs of healing, He had to be a prophet from God.
Even those Jews who were in the Temple agreed with this view. When Our Lord chased out the moneychangers and those who were selling the animals for the Temple sacrifices, the Temple authorities demanded a sign from Jesus to show that He was doing this on God's authority and not His own. Our Lord gave them a sign, but not one they expected: his death and resurrection. If Jesus was the Messiah – the anointed one of God – as some claimed, he would become a great earthly king who chased out the oppressing Romans and was ruling over a renewed Kingdom of Israel, instead of suffering and dying on a Cross.
For the Greeks, Our Lord's death on the Cross presented a difficulty as well. Greek culture at the time treasured logic and philosophy. It would not have been uncommon to hear the latest philosophic thought being discussed in the marketplace, much as we might discuss the results of the basketball game or stock market.
For those who loved philosophy, to preach a great king who performed miracles, but was not recognized by His people and killed in the most brutal manner possible would have been ridiculous. Dying for your beliefs was considered an act of heroism, as Socrates was held up as a hero for boldly defending his philosophy to his death. In contrast, Our Lord did not die boldly proclaiming His teachings, but suffered and died humbly without even defending Himself to Pontius Pilate when the opportunity arose. As St. Paul mentions, following this philosophy would have been foolishness.
Just as the Greeks viewed Our Lord's suffering and death on the Cross as foolishness, we live in a culture that views any kind of suffering as foolish. There are many around us who want to live life without any pain and suffering. Obviously, developing tools and inventions that make our lives simpler is not a bad thing. Likewise, developing medications that control pain is a good and worthy goal.
The problem arises when we want to eliminate all pain and suffering. A phrase that is becoming more and more common in medical circles is “quality of life”. Exactly what it looks like to have a high quality of life is up for debate, but there are many who think we need to measure our lives by this standard. For those whose quality of life is impaired, some want to offer “death with dignity”, also known as euthanasia, but more commonly known as physician assisted suicide. If you have too much pain, or if you have a terminal illness that will cause extreme amounts of pain, you can ask for a physician to provide a prescription that will end your life on your schedule. There is concern that euthanasia will become legal here in Montana due to a judicial decision a few months ago. This decision is currently on appeal, but is something that could be upheld.
The willingness to promote euthanasia is a sign that our culture denies any redemptive aspect to suffering. When we suffer from pain or illness, or for any other reason, we can offer that pain to be joined with the suffering that Our Lord experienced on the Cross. This suffering, even as small as the pain from stubbing your toe on a table leg, can be used to atone for our sins and the sins of others. If you've ever heard or used the very Catholic phrase “Offer it up”, it comes from our belief in redemptive suffering. Our culture doesn't recognize any value to suffering, and can only see suffering as an impediment to our quality of life.
As Christians, we do believe that there is a redemptive aspect to our suffering, and that we are to offer up our suffering to be united with Our Lord's suffering on the Cross. We are also called to defend life, even if that life may not be viewed as “quality”.