The Weight of Suffering
Passion Sunday

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

As many of you know, there is a great deal of suffering in the world, and some of us have seen more suffering than others have. I remember a student I taught in the Jane and Finch area of Toronto who grew up in El Salvador. As a boy he knew Archbishop Oscar Romero. This particular boy witnessed terrible poverty and violence. I recall the day I found him wandering the halls during lunch, looking rather somber. He said to me, “I get angry when I see these students take one look inside their lunch bags, grimace, and then throw the whole thing into the garbage. Look at that orange on the floor there, Sir,” he said, as he pointed in that direction.

The students who grew up in Toronto had no idea of the suffering their own actions were causing that kid from El Salvador, because they had never seen what he had to see; they never experienced hunger and poverty as he did. But we don’t have to travel far to meet people who suffer; suffering is everywhere. Some of us have been shielded from it, but there is great suffering here in our own country, province, city and towns. But no matter how much suffering we see, we only see a very tiny fragment of the world’s suffering. I’ve visited people whose clinical depression was so severe that I was simply in awe at the fact that they hadn’t yet committed suicide, because I knew that if I were in their place, I probably wouldn’t have the courage to go on, at least not without God’s grace. But even in those moments, I’m only seeing a tiny fiber of the suffering that is in this city, let alone the world.

I have a student who came to school out of uniform recently, and I asked him why he wasn’t in uniform. He said rather politely, “Can I tell you after class”. I said, “No, just tell me now”. So he said, “Did you see the news? The house that burned down? That was my house.” That was a pretty good excuse, I must admit. And although he is finding this ordeal very stressful, still, this is not the worst kind of suffering. His house is being rebuilt, he didn’t lose any of his family members, and he’s still in pretty good spirits, he even manages to do his homework. What destroyed his house was a fire, and it was not intentionally set. The worst suffering, on the contrary, the suffering that stays with human beings all their lives is the suffering caused by the sins of another, by cold indifference, unforgiveness, in short, human lovelessness. A personal affront against another can remain stuck in the depths of that person’s subconscious for years and years after the fact. That’s the worst suffering: not feeling loved; being the object of someone’s indifference. It is sin, ingratitude, the love of self that causes enduring and sometimes unbearable suffering in others. And it’s always very draining when the sufferings of another human being and their causes are made known to us, we feel the weight of that suffering, and we can only handle so much at one time.

But the central tenet of the Christian faith is that God the Son joined a human nature in order to take upon himself the sin of the world. He came to carry the sins of the world upon himself in order to offer it to the Father on the altar of the cross. The prophet Isaiah foretold this 700 years before the coming of Christ: “…he was despised and we took no account of him. And yet ours were the sufferings he bore, ours the sorrows he carried….he was pierced through for our faults, crushed for our sins. On him lies a punishment that brings us peace, and through his wounds we are healed.”

If you and I were to come to know from within the totality of sin and the sufferings of everyone in just one small town, we would be so overwhelmed with sorrow that we simply wouldn’t be able to function, unless of course we were loveless and indifferent human beings—in that case it wouldn’t bother us. But if we really love others and if the sufferings of others cause us grief, to behold the totality of the sins and sufferings of just one small town would probably cause us to have a nervous breakdown. But most importantly, if we were the object of those sins, if those were sins against us, we’d be crushed under their weight. But God the Son became man and, in a mysterious way that I couldn’t even begin to explain, he took upon himself the sins of the entire human race. In his Passion, which we are going to recall all throughout this holy week, he knew and tasted the entire weight of the world’s sin, past present, and future. He knew it all at once, as only a divine Person of the Trinity could know it. That was the greatest suffering Christ experienced in his Passion, not his physical suffering. His greatest suffering was knowing, experiencing, carrying, the entire weight of the world’s sin upon himself.

Sin creates an infinite gulf between God and man, and so if Christ experienced the full weight of the world’s sin, he tasted the complete and total affront against God that sin is, and he tasted its consequence, which is the total absence of God. That was our Responsorial Psalm: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” That cry really came from the depths of Christ’s soul because he really did carry the sin of the world and offered it to the Father as a sacrificial offering, to be forgiven. We simply have no concept of how much Christ suffered for us, but he did, and his divine presence is there now in the deepest core of all human suffering, precisely because of his decision to enter into it.

As we proceed through Holy Week, let us concentrate on just how much He loves us; that He would choose to taste the full weight of human suffering, of which we can know only a tiny fragment. Let us not be afraid to take a good look into that region of the heart that we always avoid, because we are afraid we’ll find the angry face of almighty God. If you dare to look, you’ll find the God that loves you so much that He suffered and tasted the entire sum of man’s rejection of love, a weight that would crush the rest of us if we beheld even a fraction of it.