A Community in Suffering

During Holy Week we focus on the sufferings of Jesusnot only the physical sufferings that led to his death on the cross but also the misunderstanding and treachery displayed toward him by many who had been close to him. Even so, we must not isolate Jesus sufferings from the sufferings of his people and those of people today. As the people of God, we constitute a community of sufferers. The source of our endurance in the midst of suffering is our faith and hope that God is indeed our help. As fellow sufferers and people of faith, we can and should show compassion to all who suffer.

In Holy Week most of the Old Testament readings are taken from that part of the book of Isaiah (Chapters 40 to 55) that reflects Israels experience in exile in the sixth century B.C. The selections focus on a figure called the Servant of the Lord. The Servant is a gentle figure with a huge task: to establish justice on the earth, to restore the people of God and to be a light to the nations. While his precise identity remains a mystery, his mission is clearly tied in with the mission of the people of God. At several points he is identified simply as Israel, while at other points he exercises a mission in, toward and for Israel.

In todays passage from Isaiah 50, the Servant speaks. He first claims to have been a recipient of a revelation from God: He opens my ear. The Servant describes in gruesome detail his terrible sufferings: I gave my back to those who beat me. Finally he proclaims that the Lord God is my help.

The Servant represents the sufferings of the exiled community of ancient Israel residing in Babylon around 538 B.C. That community had suffered much and was trying to make sense of its suffering. The Suffering Servant speaks for the people of God as a community of sufferers, when he finds a word of hope: The Lord God is my help. Evil and oppression could not overcome the power of hope.

Compassion is a beautiful word. It refers to the ability to share the sufferings of others, to make them our own, to alleviate them where possible and to show sympathy where necessary. In the biblical tradition, compassion is not just an emotion. Rather, compassion is rooted in the recognition that Gods people constitute a community of sufferers and that even in the midst of intense suffering God is present as our help.

This dynamic of community, hope for divine help and compassion underlies the other readings for Palm Sunday. The excerpts from Psalm 22the biblical lament psalm par excellencegive a sense of the intense suffering the speaker endured, the hope the sufferer has in the Lord (Come quickly to help me) and his continuing concern for the other suffering persons (The poor will eat their fill) even in the midst of the festive thanksgiving sacrifice marking the end of his own suffering.

In Matthews Gospel (following Mark), Jesus last words (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?) were the first words of Psalm 22. In reciting that psalm, Jesus identifies himself with the suffering people in every age. Becoming human meant for Jesus sharing in our human suffering. One ancient writer described crucifixion as the cruelest punishment. It was entirely appropriate, and significant, that in the midst of his terrible physical sufferings Jesus should recite Psalm 22.

But it is important to look at the entire psalm and not stop at the first line or even the brief excerpts used as todays responsorial psalm. With Psalm 22 Jesus joins the ancient psalmist in addressing God directly and expressing his solidarity with all sufferers. As he brings to the Father his pain and suffering, he also affirms his trust in God, based on how the Father has dealt with his people and himself in the past.

Yet suffering does not have the last word with the psalmist or with Jesus. The second half of Psalm 22 describes how God rescued and vindicated the speaker. In response he wants to thank God and invites the whole world to join in. It is hard for Christians not to find in this part of the psalm a prophecy of Jesus resurrection from the dead. The early Christian hymn quoted in Philippians 2 gets exactly right the biblical dynamic of Jesus suffering (even death on a cross) and his vindiction (God greatly exalted him). Suffering and death did not have the last word.

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