I don't know too many people who like to suffer. There probably aren't many people who enjoy being crushed “in infirmity”, using the prophet Isaiah's words. In fact, most of us are like the Apostles James and John, who asked Our Lord to seat them in the positions of highest power, authority, and honor within His Kingdom. Given the choice between glory and suffering, we'll all take glory every time.
In the Gospel today, Jesus flips conventional wisdom on its head. This event we just heard occurred during Our Lord's earthly ministry, long before He is to face His sacrificial death on the cross, and is a foreshadowing of how He will offer His life. To receive the glory, Our Lord tells the Apostles, you have to go through suffering. After all, what cup and what baptism is He talking about? The cup is the cup of suffering that He drinks from during His Passion, and the baptism is the baptism that He receives by the shedding of His Blood during His death on the Cross. Jesus is telling the Apostles that if they want to enter into glory in His kingdom, they need to be willing to suffer as He will suffer, and give their lives as He will give His life.
This had to be difficult for the Apostles to hear, just as it is difficult for us to hear. The Apostles no more desired suffering than we do, yet Our Lord is teaching them that there is a spiritual value to suffering that goes far beyond what we can see in our earthly lives. I know it's hard to believe that the suffering and pain that we see every day can be beneficial for ourselves and for others, but as Christians we believe that all suffering can have a redemptive aspect. The suffering that we face every day of our lives can serve to purify us, almost like scrubbing off the impurities, and draw us closer to God.
A phrase that many Catholics are familiar with regarding redemptive suffering is “Offer it up”. Many of you may have had opportunity to remind others with this phrase throughout the years, although I've sometimes heard it be used in the sense of “I'm tired of hearing you whine. Deal with it!” Of course, that's not how we should really be looking at offering our sufferings. Instead, we should be willing to offer our daily sufferings – our pain, our sorrows, our annoyances – to be joined with Our Lord's suffering and death upon the Cross for our salvation and the salvation of the whole world.
Sometimes when dealing with extreme suffering, we might enter into despair and feel that no one can understand the pain that we're struggling with. This is not true, as the Letter to the Hebrews gives us hope that Our Lord is with us in our suffering. He understands what we are going through, as he went through some of the most extreme suffering during his Passion and Death. We are reminded that we can “confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.” (Heb 4:16)
This reminder of the redemptive aspect of suffering is one that is very important in our world today, especially here in Montana. For many, suffering is something to endured, at best, or eliminated by what ever means possible, at the worst. To overcome their suffering, people turn to alcohol, drugs – both prescription and illegal – and other addictions.
If the suffering becomes too severe, people seek to end their lives, looking to death as the ultimate end of suffering. Two states in the United States, Washington and Oregon, allow physicians to assist in committing suicide, and a judge here in Montana has ruled that physician-assisted suicide should be allowed here as well. It is currently still illegal and the ruling is under appeal, but could very easily be legalized in this state.
Physician-assisted suicide should be opposed for three reasons. First, it denies the redemptive aspect of suffering, choosing to end the sufferer's life to avoid the suffering instead of allowing it to continue for his or her good and the good of others who benefit from the example and sacrifice. Second, story after story has been coming out of Oregon in which insurance companies and the state medical plan have refused long-term treatments, offering physician-assisted suicide it their places. This can and will happen elsewhere, especially as health care reform includes the mandate to reduce costs. Third, and more importantly, through physician-assisted suicide we attempt to take over God's role as the giver of life, determining on our schedule how long one's life will last instead of following God's will for that person.
While physician-assisted suicide denies a redemptive value to suffering, we do believe that suffering does have a spiritual benefit. May we be willing to truly offer up our sacrifices for our good and the good of all humanity.