Stretcher-bearers for God

Our sufferings have a salvific purpose in Christ’s sufferings when we ‘offer them up’

By Bishop Richard F. Stika

“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of His body, which is the Church.”  — Colossians 1:24

In the Gospels, we read of a paralytic carried by four stretcher-bearers who, unable to get through the crowds that had gathered around Jesus in the house where He was staying, did something very bold and astounding.

After climbing upon the roof of the house, they made a large hole in it, no doubt to the great dissatisfaction of the homeowner, and lowered the paralytic down before Jesus. And seeing their great faith, Jesus forgave the paralytic’s sins and then healed him of his paralysis (Mark 2:1-12; Luke 5:17-26).

James Tissot (French, 1836-1902). The Palsied Man Let Down through the Roof (Le paralytique descendu du toit), 1886-1896. Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper, Image: 9 5/16 x 6 9/16 in. (23.7 x 16.7 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Purchased by public subscription, 00.159.123.

Who were those four stretcher-bearers? The Gospels offer no details. But each of us can be a “stretcher-bearer” of souls when we offer up our sufferings in union with Christ’s upon the cross.

Three words for life’s sufferings. I still remember as a young boy one of the religious Sisters at the parish school I attended telling me to “Offer it up” as a way of encouraging me after tearfully showing her my skinned elbow from a playground fall. And with a compassionate voice as she dried my tears, she explained what those words meant, saying, “You can make a gift of it to Jesus on the cross, and you can also make a gift of it to help others.” Those three simple words and her short explanation represent one of the great spiritual counsels of the Church—that of “salvific suffering.”

The only answer to suffering. “Why?” This one word, this one question, sums up the universal reaction to the mystery of human suffering in all its forms and intensities for which the world has no answer. We may even have identified, at some point in our life, with the anguished cry of Job to God—“Why then did you bring me forth from the womb?” (Job 10:18). But God’s response to this universal question is also one word: Christ, the Word of God! Christ alone provides the only answer that truly satisfies the “why” of our sufferings: His own sufferings! But if Christ is God’s answer to the mystery of suffering, God also invites us to be a part of this answer to the world as Jesus’ helpers in His work of salvation and peace.

Embracing our cross. Our sufferings are not useless! Far from it if we but embrace them as Christ embraced His cross. But the world is constantly tempting us with those words Jesus heard on Calvary—“Come down from the cross” (Matthew 27:40). In the beautiful words, though, of the Second Vatican Council, we are encouraged to find in our sufferings their salvific meaning and purpose: “In the face of (suffering) and death, the riddle of human existence grows most acute. Through Christ and in Christ, the riddles of sorrow and death grow meaningful. Apart from His Gospel they overwhelm us.” For only through Christ and in Christ can our sufferings be supernaturally invested with His redemptive love and power such that they can help others in a most miraculous way. How so? By offering our sufferings and crosses up to Christ.

Purpose and meaning. As it is Christ Jesus who “fully reveals to us who we are and makes our supreme calling clear” (to paraphrase the Second Vatican Council), so, too, it is Christ Jesus who, in His sufferings, reveals to us the meaning and purpose of our own sufferings—a salvific meaning and purpose. The story of the four stretcher-bearers who lowered the paralytic before Jesus illustrates this. And when we offer up our sufferings to Christ, we commit ourselves to that work most important to Jesus—the salvation of souls.

Christ’s co-workers. There are so many people today who are “paralyzed” by sin and vice, addictions, hurts and fears, who are unable to bring themselves before Christ without the help of others. But by virtue of our supernatural life in Christ as baptized members of His Mystical Body, we are not confined to time, space, and physical health and abilities to help others. This is where our sufferings and sacrifices can particularly come into play. For when we offer them up to Christ, He embraces them as His own, and invests them with the redemptive value of His sufferings. As such, they transcend time and place in how and to whom Jesus applies their value for the good of others. We “offer up” our sufferings so we can help “lift up” the many paralytics in their spiritual and corporal infirmities and bring them to Christ so He can say to them, “Your sins are forgiven,” and then take them by the hand so they can stand upright before God again in their dignity.

St. Teresa’s example. In order to bring the love of Christ to the poorest and rejected of the world,  Mother Teresa of Kolkata (Calcutta) wanted to do even more than she and her Sisters could do. So she called upon the many people who wanted to help the Missionaries of Charity in their incredible work but were unable to do so because of their own sufferings and crippling illnesses.

Though they could not physically join her in helping, she asked them to enter into a spiritual relationship with the Sisters of her community, and to offer up their sufferings for their work among the poor and destitute. She called these special helpers her “spiritual twins” and her “sick and suffering co-workers” of whom she said:

“Every Sister has a second self—to pray and suffer for her. Often when I find the work very difficult, I offer their suffering and I find help comes at once—from their continual suffering, the work of the Sisters… bears fruit” (“Come Be My Light,” 146).

Suffering’s sacred vestment. Consider this as well. When we offer up our sufferings and sacrifices, we exercise our “common” share in the priesthood of Christ! And when we do so, Jesus transforms these into His most beautiful crimson red priestly vestments. How could it be otherwise? For by virtue of our baptism, we are commissioned to offer worship to God. As the highest form of worship, as it is for love, is sacrifice, we exercise our baptismal priesthood in a most privileged way in the holy sacrifice of the Mass in the offering we make of our “spiritual sacrifices” that Jesus unites in the Mass to His offering to the Father.

Though the ordained priest of the altar is vested to offer the holy sacrifice of the Mass, we, too, are vested in the sufferings and sacrifices we offer, particularly in the Mass we are to live throughout the week.

The other colors of our vestments. And may the vestments of the Mass we live include the other liturgical colors—that of “white” representing the baptismal garment of our purity in Christ as His bride; that of “gold” reflecting the kingly dignity of the moral life we live in Christ; that of “green” for the ordinary sacrifices we make in the various vocations of life and daily labors; and violet for the penitential practices that help us say “yes” to God and all He asks of us in the various circumstances of life.

But we must not forget the “rose” vestment of our “sacrifice of joy” (Psalm 27:6) that should accompany all our sacrifices for love of God and neighbor. And as often as we mortify ourselves and “die” to selfishness and sin, there is the “black” vestment, sometimes worn for funerals, that reminds us not only of life’s brevity, but also of the vestment of “light and joy” that awaits us, having died in Christ so as to rise with Him in eternal life.

Sacrifice with love. Therefore, let us follow the counsel of St. Paul and “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14), and allow Him to “vest” our sufferings in His so that we might offer ourselves as a “living sacrifice” and “complete what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ,” that is, His Body, the Church (Hebrews 9:11; Romans 12:1; Colossians 1:24).

In understanding the redemptive value of our sufferings in Christ’s upon the cross, we can better become the “suffering” co-workers and helpers of Christ in His work of salvation for souls. As Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen observed, “Sacrifice without love is pain—pain with love is sacrifice.”

May the love of Christ transform your sufferings into Christ’s redemptive love in action.

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