In today’s passage from the Letter to the Romans, St. Paul speaks of suffering, of delayed gratification, of labor pains, of the whole of creation which is groaning and of hope. These subjects all contribute to a "theology of suffering" which St. Paul uses not only to make sense of the sufferings of Jesus but also of his own and of those who suffer with him. He uses the image of a woman in labor in an attempt to illustrate what suffering means to him.
As a man, St. Paul would not have known the pain of labor. The Greek philosophers would not have known it either. However, their limited knowledge of this fact of life was enough for them to come to an understanding that a woman's pain in giving birth was part of a process that was also evident in the world as it shifted from one age to another. From the experience of child birth, they came to believe that every new age was born through pain, labor pains.
The groaning of a woman who is about to give birth is long forgotten after she holds the newborn in her arms, at least, so I have been told. As a woman holds her newborn child, she is able to regard the pain she has endured as a positive experience.
St. Paul is waiting for the return of Jesus and with him the new age that has been promised through the Scriptures. Just as the high priest enters the Holy of Holies each year on the Feast of Atonement, Jesus has entered the heavenly sanctuary. When the high priest has sprinkled the blood of the lamb on the mercy seat, he returns to the assembly and proclaims God's forgiveness. The blood of the lamb has saved them from their sins. When Jesus returns from the heavenly sanctuary, he will bring with him our salvation having shed his blood for our sins. His return will signal the beginning of a new age in which we will no longer experience pain, sadness, tears or death, all of which are the result of sin.
That new age can only be born through pain and affliction. By suffering, we unite ourselves to the crucified Jesus. When we pick up our cross and follow in the footsteps of Jesus, we participate in the birth of that new age that will come when Jesus returns with the new life that has been promised. In fact, St. Paul believed that his sufferings and those of all who believed, actually hastened the day of Jesus' return.
One does not have to be a Greek philosopher to realize that suffering is a natural part of our human existence, but ordinarily we don’t seek out suffering. When it does enter our lives, we, like St. Paul, need to find a purpose for that suffering. That purpose can be found in the redemptive suffering of Jesus. When we remember that suffering, as we do in every Eucharist, we also find a purpose for suffering in our own lives. Like the apostles, we can even rejoice that we have been asked to suffer with Christ.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator