SO far we have been thinking of our Lord's work on the Cross mainly from its mental, spiritual side; His prevailing Intercession; His Absolution granted to sinners; His Love; and His supreme Self-sacrifice. But now we must remember that part of His work on the Cross consisted in His bearing of our physical pain and suffering. And the physical suffering on the Cross was only a special expression of what had been the principle of His whole life. He came down on earth to share all the ills that flesh is heir to, the ills that in some way are natural to our fallen state; in order to show us by His example that all these ills are no impediment to a life of perfect holiness and complete union with God, and in order to make these very ills become instruments for our good, to make sickness and pain a "healing medicine" for the soul.
There is a tendency nowadays to regard all pain and sickness as absolutely contrary to the will of God. We are told that God, the good Father, cannot will the suffering of His children; that all suffering is the work of the devil, and that God's will is for the health and happiness of all His creatures. When that has been said, it is only one step farther to say that, as suffering is contrary to God's will, and as God is omnipotent, there is no such thing as pain or sickness, that pain and sickness are a delusion; and that as pain and sickness are located by us in a material body, the material body is a delusion also; and there in a nutshell you have the doctrine of Christian Science.
Now such theories, whether pushed to their logical conclusion or not, consist of a truism and a fallacy combined. It is perfectly true that, if sin had never come into the world, there need have been no occasion for suffering, and that God would probably not have willed that suffering should exist. But then sin has come into the world; man, as we know him, is fallen man; and in the case of fallen man God does will suffering, partly as a chastisement for sin, and partly as an education to lead him away from sin, and partly also as a way in which we can fill up that which is lacking of the sufferings of Christ and be fellow-workers with Him for the saving of the souls of our brethren. Sometimes suffering is due to the sufferer's own sin, as when our Lord after healing a man said to him, "Go and sin no more." Sometimes the connection is more remote, as when our Lord said, in correction of His disciples,
Neither hath this man sinned nor his parents, that he was born blind." People often suffer, not in consequence of their own sins, but as an indirect result of the sin of perhaps some distant ancestor. There is such a solidarity about human nature that a man's sin leaves its traces far down the ages, blasting the opening life of some remote and innocent descendant. In some way or other, directly or remotely, much at least of suffering is connected with sin, with man's fallen state; And to say that God cannot, will suffering for man in this fallen state, which is the only state that we are acquainted with, is to rob God of all moral purpose in His dealings with us, and to regard Him as a good-tempered, indulgent, easy-going person who does not mind what we do and is too lazy to be severe.
Now, as Christ came down into a fallen world in which suffering is an element, it was part of the purpose of His Incarnate Life to endure real physical pain and suffering. Hunger and thirst and weariness had been His portion during those years when the Son of Man had not where to lay His head, and all that part of His human experience is summed up in the Passion, in the bodily pain of scourging and the crown of thorns, in the long-drawn physical agony of the Crucifixion. And we notice first "the example of His patience"; "He was oppressed, and He was afflicted; He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so He openeth not His mouth." "Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not My will, but Thine be done." "If this cup may not pass from Me except I drink it, Thy will be done." Not a word of impatience, not a word of rebuke, not a word of anger passes His lips. O God, when pain and sickness come upon us, mercifully grant that we may follow the example of His patience! We may be sure that this example of patience has brought new courage and power of endurance to many sufferers to whom Christ has perhaps been nothing more than an example of a good man suffering bravely through an unjust condemnation.
But for us Christians it means more than that. Christ's physical pain and suffering has a redemptive significance and power. Through that mortal agony He is doing something for us, that we could never have done for ourselves. He is robbing pain of its chief bitterness; He is making death the gate to life immortal. "O death, I will be thy plague; O grave, I will be thy destruction," cries the voice of prophecy. "O death," says St. Paul, "where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!" Our Lord Jesus Christ has made death something so utterly different from what it was before. Before, it had borne the stamp of sin, and of God's anger which rests upon sin. Death had betokened banishment from God, the sentence of condemnation on rebellious man--"dust thou art and to dust shalt thou return." But when He Who knew no sin passed the portals of death He passed them in royal triumph as a conqueror, passed through them on His way to heaven, "leaving a glorious track where Saints newborn might fearless follow to their blest abode," and bringing light and deliverance to those "prisoners of hope" who had died in the bitterness of death before the Redemption had been won.
There will always be something sad and mysterious in the passing even of a Christian soul, always urgent need in that solemn hour for the prayers and the rites of the Church. But through the merits of Christ's Passion the sting of God's anger is taken away for those who repent, and there is instead a sure and certain hope that we depart "to be with Christ, which is far better."
So Christ is not only our Example of patience in enduring pain and death; but He is also our Redeemer Who has stripped suffering of its worst pain, and makes death the gate of life. And He works a greater wonder still. For, as we make our Communion, His pain and sufferings become the very food and sustenance of our life. His physical pains are part of that crucified life which is given to us in that Holy Sacrament as that on which we are to live. Pain, robbed of its sting by His redemptive act, is now transfigured by His indwelling sacramental life. Pain becomes a thing by which we live, a wholesome medicine of the soul, something to be not stolidly endured but cheerfully accepted. There was nothing morbid or extravagant when the Saints prayed to be allowed to share more and more of the sufferings of Christ, to have the marks of His Passion stamped on their own hands and feet, as they were in the case of St. Francis of Assisi. To feel more of the pain and sufferings of Christ was to share more and more of the life of the Crucified, that indwelling life of the dying Saviour, which is our pledge of salvation and our hope of glory. To embrace suffering gladly, and go out to meet it, was to take their own part in His redemptive work. When pain comes on us, especially that pain which is the forerunner of death, let us go to the Blessed Sacrament, or have it brought to us if we are too weak to go; let us unite our sufferings to those of the pain-stricken Saviour Who comes to us, thus making pain a new bond of union between ourselves and Him; let us rejoice in the sufferings which bring us closer to the sufferings of Christ, because the suffering Christ is the only One Who can be our Saviour. His strength is made perfect in weakness. His strength, which passed through death and conquered death, is brought to its full perfection, exhibited in its triumphant power, in our mortal weakness. In our mortal weakness, as all earthly props are failing us, we lay hold upon Him that is strong, Who comes to us in the Holy Sacrament of His Passion; our very sufferings bind us then to Him Who suffered for us; beneath are the everlasting arras, and the Blessed Sacrament is a true Viaticum, a food for our journey to life everlasting, and through our cheerful, willing fellowship in His sufferings we have our share in His redemptive work.
Let us fix our minds on the heroic courage of Christ, His absolute self-restraint and uncomplaining patience under the scourge, the crown of thorns, the weight of the cross, the slow agony of the dying, in order that the example may stimulate us to more endurance; let us thank Him for the light that shines on a Christian deathbed through the grace of His Redemption; and let us resolve to treat suffering as part of our membership with the Crucified, and as a way in which we may help the souls of others.