Homily: Suffering Transformed

Sunday, December 10, 2017 (November 27, OS) 27th Sunday after Pentecost. Great-martyr James the Persian (421), Ven. Palladius of Thessalonica (6th-7th c.), 17 Monk-martyrs in India (4th c.), Ven. Romanus the Wonderworker of Cilicia (5th c.).

Ss. Cyril & Methodius Ukrainian Orthodox Mission

Madison, WI

Epistle: Ephesians 6:10-17
Gospel: Luke 13:10-17

Until she met Jesus, the woman in the Gospel had not stood upright for 18 years. For 18 years, she has looked down at the ground. For 18 years, she was unable to look up at the sky, see the horizon or look directly into the face of her loved ones.

253499-pThere’s no doubt that the woman lived a hard life. Only a generation or so ago, it wasn’t uncommon to meet people who–like the woman in the Gospel–were bent over from a life of hard manual labor, poor nutrition and sickness. Today, thank God, we rarely encounter individuals like the woman in the Gospel because there are so few people in her condition.

Ironically, because we are wealthier and so healthier, we often have an unbalanced view of suffering.

The absence of the kind of physical suffering we see in the Gospel means we tend to be upset by things our grandparents and great-grandparents would simply have ignored. When I was a boy, I remember my grandparents talking rather, matter a factly, about siblings that died when they were children. One of my uncles drowned as a boy while his brother, my grandfather, looked on helplessly. My grandmother told me about her sister, my aunt, who died in the first hours after birth. And then there were the others who died because of an illness or injury that today we can cure with a quick trip to the doctor.

And at one time or another, all of my grandparents told me how he or she was one of 5, 6, 8, or 12 who lived. All of them had several siblings who died in childhood. Though my family was poor when I was a boy, I simply had no frame of reference for seeing my siblings die in childhood.

Today these things sound unimaginably to many of us. And to these unimaginable losses we should add the experience of many who, only a generation or two ago, suffered the indignation of casual racism, ethnic and religious prejudice, drunkenness and physical violence in the home. And of course, there was a life of hard manual labor, the absence of central heating, much less air conditioning, indoor plumbing and modern pharmaceuticals.

Because we are, thank God, largely protected from the kind he day to day experience of the kind of physical suffering we see in the Gospel we don’t have a proper understanding of suffering. Sometimes, like I said, we are overly sensitive to even small slights.

But not infrequently, we tend to romanticize suffering. We might even go so far as to think suffering is a good thing. In this, we are simply wrong even if not intentionally cruel for thinking as we do.

Suffering is evil.

To fail to understand this is symptomatic of a malformed conscience and a lack of sensitivity to the grief–large and small, extraordinary and ordinary–that afflicts those we meet.

Suffering is evil and as Christians, we are obligated to alleviate suffering when it is within our ability to do so. The only limit to our obligation, beyond what we are capable of doing, is that we not seek to care for some at the expense of others. I can’t lift your burden only to inflict suffering on someone else. As St Paul reminds us, we cannot do evil that good might result (Romans 3:8).

While suffering is evil, in Christ it can be turned to a good purpose.

We need to look no further than the woman in the Gospel. It was her suffering that leads her to Christ. And with the healing of her body, she also received liberation of her soul. “[O]ught not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound—think of it—for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?”

In Christ, suffering is transformed. But, and this can’t be emphasized enough, the transformation of human suffering requires that, as Paul says in today’s epistle, that we “take up the whole armor of God.”

Before all else, this means that I must lay aside my belief that I have any other opponent in this life beside the devil. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

The true cause of human suffering and sorrow is found in the enemy of souls.

It is the devil’s lies that lead to the corruption of the body and the myriad divisions that afflict the human heart and society. Until I accept this–which is to say, until I repent of my sins–suffering will always undo me.

At the heart of the Gospel is the truth, ratified by generations of Christians, that apart from Christ, every sorrow, every loss, every disappoint, every betray, every physical, emotional or social pain, has the potential crush me. It’s easy to think weak or morally lacking those who are undone by suffering we think minor. But when I do, I reveal my own lack of spiritual maturity.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Let us see human suffering for the evil it is and move to alleviate it when we can. It is in Christ, that every loss becomes a gain because in each loss I discover my need for Him Who in a few days will come as a little Child to save humanity.

As Christ has done for us, let us do for others. We can be for others as Christ is for us, however, only to the degree we have purified our hearts through the grace that comes to us through the sacraments and the ascetical disciplines of prayer, fasting, almsgiving and manual labor.

Let us, in other words, put on “the whole armor of God” so that by faith we “quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one” who seeks to do us harm.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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