In Bach’s oratorio The Saint John Passion, a bass aria begins: “Eilt—Hurry, hurry you suffering souls.” In an urgent whisper, the chorus responds: “Wohin—where to?” The soloist replies, “Nach Golgotha—to Calvary.” That chorus represents the whole human family in two ways. On the one hand, Christian faith teaches that by his cross Jesus redeemed all men and women. On the other hand, history and experience teach that for the most part, the face of humanity is stained with blood and tears. Even those whose existence is comfortable must sooner or later confront death. Even in the United States in 2004, there are millions for whom misery is the daily climate—the poor, the homeless, the jobless, the bereaved and those who are seriously ill. “If it weren’t for hard luck,” said a Texas sharecropper, “I wouldn’t have no luck at all.”
For nearly 2,000 years, however, believers have found that the mystery of the Cross can comfort and strengthen hearts pressed down by sorrow. In every century, saints have given their fellow Christians the same advice the Bach libretto gives. St. Paul told the Romans they would be glorified with Christ, provided they suffered with him. St. Thomas More reminded his children in times of trouble that they could hardly hope to go to heaven on a feather bed, seeing that our Lord went there on a cross.
In the 20th century, Edith Stein, who was canonized in 1999, was a pre-eminent witness to the Cross. She was born into a German Jewish family in 1891 and was baptized in 1922. In 1933 she entered the Carmelite convent in Cologne, Germany, where she was given the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
That name was prophetic. In a lecture she gave in 1931, Edith Stein said: “Whoever belongs to Christ, must go the whole way with him. He must mature to adulthood; he must one day or other walk the way of the cross to Gethsemane and Golgotha.” She herself walked that way in August 1942, when she was put to death in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
All the same, Edith Stein, who had a gift for sympathizing with others, would surely have agreed that Christians must be wary of too easy comment on the mystery of the Cross. There is good reason for this diffidence. Suffering is too common to be interesting, too terrible to be taken for granted and too mysterious to be understood by the human mind left to itself.
Let one example underscore that point. In December 1966, Pierre Veuillot, then 53, became archbishop of Paris and was promptly made a cardinal. Within a few months, he was stricken with cancer and died in February 1968. During the last weeks of his life, in great pain, he said to a visitor: “Tell priests not to speak of suffering. They don’t know what they’re talking about. They don’t know what it is.”
All the same, if Christians must be circumspect in recommending consideration of the Cross to others, they must be ready to recommend such meditation to themselves. When they do so, they will catch a glimpse of the meaning that suffering can have when it is looked at in the light of the death and resurrection of the Lord.
In the prayer he made in Gethsemane, Jesus asked his Father to spare him the agonizing death he foresaw. But then he added at once the words that have ever since supported countless Christians in their own sufferings: “Not my will, but thine be done.” Under the impulse of the love that he bore for his eternal father and for his earthly brothers and sisters, Christ chose to walk the way of the cross in fulfillment of his mission to make salvation available to all men and women. The cross was a vehicle of love: “Ours were the sufferings he bore” (Is 53:4).
This revelation of the meaning that suffering can have provides an austere comfort. It does not anesthetize pain. It does not unveil the final and complete answer to the problem of evil, but it promises those who believe that there will be such an answer at the end of time, because the death of Jesus was followed by his resurrection.
Christians are precisely the people who believe not just that Jesus died but that he rose on the third day and that he lives in glory. In a note to her prioress a few months before her death, Edith Stein wrote that she could say from her heart: Ave Crux, spes unica—“Hail Cross, our only hope.” But if Calvary had not been followed by the resurrection, there would be no such hope. If Christ is not risen from the dead, said Paul to the Corinthians, then our faith is vain. But he has risen, and so death, the last enemy, has been destroyed (1 Cor 15). Christians are a people of hope because they believe the story of the human family will have a happy ending. The joy of Easter is imperishable, because on the first Easter morning the tomb in the garden was empty.