My goal for this weekend’s homily is not to make suffering look easy but to reinforce the need for commitment to God’s will at the moments of suffering. What happens when we go through suffering or when a loved one goes through the experience of pain? We hear it very clearly stated in the readings of today, "My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges. Endure your trials as "discipline"; God treats you as sons” (Heb. 2: 5-6). And Jesus responds to the question of whether only a few will be saved with the statement, "Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough” (Lk. 13:24). The gate of suffering is truly narrow, and no one would ordinarily want to go through it. But there’s a song that says, “It’s not an easy road but Jesus walks beside me and brightens the journey and lightens every heavy load.”
To reinforce the great value of suffering for the sanctification of the person suffering as well as understanding that souls can be saved through the great merits of suffering well, St. Paul told the Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ: and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me, and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (2:20). Let’s be clear about this, it is easy to explain away the reality of suffering by making it look as if the person suffering has just to believe in Jesus and every pain will go away. That’s not correct. However, we are only sojourners on this earth, until we reach our eternal destination. This life is very short, but eternity is forever. God will wipe away every tear in eternity. Here’s the message, suffering plays a crucial role in the economy of holiness because it can make us great saints in the process. Jesus is being formed within us in suffering.
Jesus went to the tortures of Calvary and then to the eternal victory of Easter morning. St Augustine tells us, “Trials and tribulations offer us a chance to make reparation for our past faults and sins. On such occasions, the Lord comes to us like a physician to heal the wounds left by our sins. Tribulation is the divine medicine.” The human experience of suffering can be hard, yet those who suffer are actually blessed, not cursed. The prayers of a sick or suffering person can be highly efficacious especially if borne out of patience and endurance but the world would not understand that. The world says, "Avoid suffering at all costs even to the point of ending your own life through euthanasia. Let us give them mercy-killing." Really? Mercy comes rather from purgation through Christ by the reward of eternal life. The world says it’s better to kill yourself than to suffer whereas Jesus says, “Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (Jn. 12:25). The suffering person becomes like Jesus because it is the experience of taking the cross and following him.
To someone who is suffering, it is hard to explain a theology that puts everything about pain in a spiritual realm, yet the spiritual insight remains the only way to grasp the transcendental meaning of suffering. Most of us haven’t really suffered in the real sense of it. We only hear about it or read it up. But the story of someone suffering might connect with us when we see through them and in their suffering, we can appreciate a deeper relationship with God. The Letter to the Hebrews helps us understand what that connection is intended to produce in us as children of God, namely, that suffering does not imply abandonment by God, but rather, a way through which God strengthens us and prepares us for the things ahead. The gospel reminds us today that Jesus was “making his way to Jerusalem” (Lk. 13:22). To do what? He was going to suffer. So, when the question came to him, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” that question became an opportunity for Christ to point his followers to his mission -to face suffering and death in the hands of the Scribes and Pharisees. Jerusalem was that narrow gate through which Christ would bring us salvation. When we hear the Hebrew letter tell us that God chastises the one he loves, the message is to take our cue from Christ who is the beloved Son of the Father, “Son though he was, yet he learned to obey through suffering” (Heb. 5:8).
What does it mean when either we or our loved one is going through suffering?
I want to point you to the story of a little “saint” called Joshua. Please, do me a favor and watch this 30-minute documentary. You can find it on YouTube with the title, “Joshua, the Boy Who Loved the Lord More than He Loved His Mother.” This story is very recent. Joshua died in 2021 on his 13th birthday. Joshua’s parents were formerly Hindu but converted to Christianity before Josh was born. Right from the time Joshua began to put thoughts together, his love for Jesus was evident. He insisted on wearing three rosaries around his neck, even to school, because he was proud of his special devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. He was never embarrassed to show his love for God. Boundless energy and joy marked this little boy’s life. Around 10-11 years of age, Joshua became sick and was diagnosed with bone cancer, a particularly painful cancer. When his suffering from chemotherapy became intense, he asked his mother “How long must I suffer this way?” She said to the Lord, “God, give me an answer.” Then as she opened the bible, her eyes fell on the passage from Galatians (4:19) “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you.” She explained to him that he would suffer until Jesus was formed in him. Josh never asked the question again but only grew closer to Jesus, praying for others through his pain. He developed an intense love of the Eucharist and prepared himself in the hospital daily. This remarkable boy affected everyone who met him, especially the priests including the archbishop of Perth Australia who came to know his story.
Everyone loved and wanted to be near Joshua. Why? Because he emanated the presence of Christ. Here was this beautiful joyful boy, now bloated to the point of distortion because of the medicines and pain of cancer. Yet he became more beautiful with each passing day. Jesus is totally irresistible. He radiated the presence of God, becoming an example to the priests and everyone who came near him.
Here are testimonies of him during these years of pain as a sick child: The archbishop of Perth, Australia where they lived, had a personal experience of Joshua, and had this to say, “The most important thing about him is that suffering didn’t make him bitter, didn’t turn him in on himself. It opened him up.” Msgr. Michael Keating, who has been a priest for 60 years was a regular visitor to Joshua. Fr. Keating said Joshua’s prayers were always more beautiful than his. He described himself as fortunate for being the first priest to see Joshua after he died. In the Monsignor’s words, “I don’t think I would pray for Joshua, but I would pray to him… And I would pray to him and ask him to help me in my priesthood.” Fr. Thomas Mankuthel was the chaplain of the hospital who gave Joshua the Holy Communion every day and testified that the family was tested in fire. That they emerged victorious because they had such deep faith. He called Josh a saint. At Josh’s funeral, the mom asked him to give her the strength to speak with courage at his eulogy. Looking at his holy face in the casket, she said, “Joshy, I have to give your eulogy in just a few moments. Don’t make mummy cry.” And then the words that Josh always said came to her mind, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” It gave her courage. The whole family is holy mostly through the testimony of a child who brought joy and cheerfulness in the midst of suffering because he knew the Lord. Joshua is a witness to what Christ said in the scripture, “Anyone who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37-39). Remember, his parents Jayasree and Subi converted to Catholicism, striving each day to give glory to God through their joy, pain, and suffering. Joshua became an example of a saint-like quality; disciplined and chastised through the pain and hardships of cancer. We can say that he emerged victorious with the Lord, and as his mother said, Jesus healed Joshua on his birthday by calling him into eternity on the same day of his birth.
Friends, if you or your loved one is going through suffering, we are aware that it can be a tough place to be. We are not here to explain away your suffering. We are here to let you know that we walk with you in faith. We are here to remind you that united in faith through Christ, we pray for the grace to endure. Know that Jesus fully understands your pains and they can bear great fruit. Yes, your suffering is painful, but the joy of the Lord brings you strength. As St. Paul would say, what we experience in this world is nothing compared to the glory that will be revealed at the end of time. May grace and peace be yours.
Readings: 1st- Is. 66:18-21; 2nd- Heb. 12:5-7, 11-13; Gospel- Lk. 13:22-30