The Salvific Suffering of Christ

A blessed Passion/Palm Sunday to all our readers, a day of great solemnity, wherein we meditate on Christ’s pilgrimage towards His own death, and the stark account of His own suffering and death by crucifixion. This, paradoxically, was also His ‘glory’, for, as we recite in the Stations, it was by His holy cross, that the Saviour redeemed the world.

As Pope Saint John Paul II put it in his letter on suffering, Salvifici Doloris, well worth a read in this sacred time:

God gives his Son to “the world” to free man from evil, which bears within itself the definitive and absolute perspective on suffering. At the same time, the very word “gives” (“gave”) indicates that this liberation must be achieved by the only-begotten Son through his own suffering. And in this, love is manifested, the infinite love both of that only-begotten Son and of the Father who for this reason “gives” his Son. This is love for man, love for the “world”: it is salvific love.

In giving His ‘Son’, God gives Himself, for the Son was, and is God, which is why He could take upon Himself the sins of all time:

If the suffering “is measured” by the evil suffered, then the words of the Prophet enable us to understand the extent of this evil and suffering with which Christ burdened himself. It can be said that this is “substitutive” suffering; but above all it is “redemptive”. The Man of Sorrows of that prophecy is truly that “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”(42). In his suffering, sins are cancelled out precisely because he alone as the only-begotten Son could take them upon himself, accept them with that love for the Father which overcomes the evil of every sin; in a certain sense he annihilates this evil in the spiritual space of the relationship between God and humanity, and fills this space with good.

Only Christ could take upon Himself ‘the evil of every sin’, for the One who suffered was not limited to the concrete conditions of space and time, a finite being, but the eternal and infinite God:

He who by his Passion and death on the Cross brings about the Redemption is the only-begotten Son whom God “gave”. And at the same time this Son who is consubstantial with the Father suffers as a man. His suffering has human dimensions; it also has unique in the history of humanity—a depth and intensity which, while being human, can also be an incomparable depth and intensity of suffering, insofar as the man who suffers is in person the only-begotten Son himself: ” God from God”. Therefore, only he—the only-begotten Son—is capable of embracing the measure of evil contained in the sin of man: in every sin and in “total” sin, according to the dimensions of the historical existence of humanity on earth.

As Pope John Paul puts it, we can never plumb the depths of this mystery, but the words of Christ in Gethsemane offer a window into His human soul, a glimpse into what it means for God to ‘become Man’:

His words also attest to this unique and incomparable depth and intensity of suffering which only the man who is the only-begotten Son could experience; they attest to that depth and intensity which the prophetic words quoted above in their own way help us to understand. Not of course completely (for this we would have to penetrate the divine-human mystery of the subject), but at least they help us to understand that difference (and at the same time the similarity) which exists between every possible form of human suffering and the suffering of the God-man. Gethsemane is the place where precisely this suffering, in all the truth expressed by the Prophet concerning the evil experienced in it, is revealed as it were definitively before the eyes of Christ’s soul.

In the infinitude of His suffering, Christ even took upon Himself the poena of separation from God, yes, the very pains of ‘hell’, without sin, without despair, but taking upon His own Person what we deserve for our own turning away from Him:

Together with this horrible weight, encompassing the “entire” evil of the turning away from God which is contained in sin, Christ, through the divine depth of his filial union with the Father, perceives in a humanly inexpressible way this suffering which is the separation, the rejection by the Father, the estrangement from God. But precisely through this suffering he accomplishes the Redemption, and can say as he breathes his last: “It is finished

And so, we too must ‘finish’ our work, our own participation in the sacrifice of Christ, which is how we ‘make up what is lacking in His sufferings’. For, really, the only thing missing, like the Good Thief of which Father Callam writes, is our own fiat, our ‘yes’ to God, in accepting what He sends us, which all works to our good – and the good of others – if we too ‘bear our cross’ well: Remember me, when Thou comest into Thy Kingdom.