As a Christian I struggle with the idea of suffering, even worse than the idea is the experience—the soul-wrenching skin piercing visceral experience of pain. This is the paradox that the Orthodox Church presents for our meditation today. The Cross—the excruciating physical, emotional and spiritual agony that our Lord suffered on behalf of us, the most undeserving and miserable ones–it is through this Cross, this agony that we are led to salvation.
Most days I do not want to accept this. I do not want to suffer. I do not want to witness suffering and injustice. The blown up bloody bodies of innocents strewn against the morning paper—the greed I see around me that gives rise to heinous institutionalized inequality. Blatant racism, sexism, corruption of every society. When I reel in loneliness because I know that in my most painful moments I too will be alone; and not just left alone, but even mocked and ridiculed. Who wants to suffer? It is counterintuitive; it is unhealthy even self-destructive the self-help books tell me.
But the Church teaches me that there is no way to heaven—the only way is the Via Dolorosa, the Sorrowful Way, the Way of the Cross. This is the rub—that the way out of the pain is through the pain. The only way to heaven is through hell.
At the foot of Golgotha in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I have knelt in front of the Cross of the Lord; have witnessed the stones torn in two. I have tasted of that bitter cup of agony, if only in the lightest dose. Having attended the pageant of pain at that holy site, I have tasted of the bitterness of death, have followed His shrouded body to the burial cave, have witnessed the blood on the pavement, heard the lashings and the beating of the nails through the bone. It is the shrieks of infernal pain unleashed in the darkest hell, the agony of despair, that reverberated through the Praetorium while the soldiers played dice over the white gown. The lurid circles and Xs inscribed on the floor of the dungeon where He was awaiting His doom.
The bloody pool, mockers with grimaces wagging fingers. I too have felt the deep cut of the sword through the heart. The emptying, the utter relinquishing of will to something or someone that must have felt utterly sinister and pointless.
It is death incarnate that we must stare deeply into to understand that this is what life is about. Suffering is life. No one can escape it. Only when we comprehend this can we realize that just a few feet away, a few days away, lies the site of the Holy Resurrection. From the mouth of the abyss the light floods out. It is the very same revolving door from within which pass both birth and death, light and dark, agony and ecstasy. That is the paradox that we are forced to swallow—that death is life crouching to be born; life carries the seed of the bitter knowledge of death.
It is the Lord, our hero, who has paved the Way. The Via Dolorosa leads to the stairway to heaven. The instrument of death has become life-giving. Such is the Mystery that our minds might like sieves attempt to hold.
Let us raise up our Crosses and take on the same agony of Crucifixion that leads to the ecstasy of Resurrection.