A red array of metaphors can be read in the wounds Christ received on the cross. The wounds can stand for our suffering and its sources, for our sins, for our vulnerabilities. They can be the cruel divisions torn in the Body of Christ, the Church, by heresy and history. Here are five small thoughts I’ve had during this Lent, which may be of use to others.
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1. Hymn of the Medical Oddity. Suffering is humiliating to us. No matter how accidental or inevitable, sickness and the debility of age make us ashamed to appear in front of our loved ones. No matter how deep our grief and pain, we still hate to cry where others can see. We act as though our own weakness is sinful — something to be hidden away, inter Christianos non nomine.
Yet Christ’s wounds and suffering were displayed as publicly as possible. He was allowed no privacy in His pain, and we usually aren’t either. His agony was witnessed by those who loved Him, whether or not He would have spared them that sight, and so ours is as well. He accepted the publicity of His suffering as part of His submission to His Father’s will.
I can think of three ways to accept the humiliation that comes with suffering, sickness, and weakness — truly accepting this humiliation, rather than denying that it exists or trying to toughen ourselves so we can’t be hurt. One is humor. Gallows humor, hospital humor, even self-lacerating humor can acknowledge pain while refusing to let it destroy the self.
We could also seek to unite the public awfulness of our suffering with Christ’s. Just as the physical pain can be a way of becoming like Christ, so too can the humiliation.
But the third way is most striking to me: We can attempt to see ourselves, even in our weakness, as Christ on the cross would see us. We can try to discern the image of God — God crucified in the public square — in our own experience and our own ravaged faces.
2. Poking or listening? St. Thomas the Apostle, “Doubting Thomas,” was graciously allowed by Christ to put his fingers right into the sacred wounds. For some reason, Americans especially seem to have taken this approach as a model rather than a second-best option. We try to elicit honesty from suffering friends, openness, and soul-baring answers to questions like, “But how are you really doing?”
I’ve done this myself, more than once. And the wry, pained, deflecting eyes that met my sincere and concerned gaze convinced me that this is often a wrong and even cruel approach. We don’t have the right to demand further vulnerability from someone already suffering in front of us. Better to ask less and listen more, to let the one in pain guide the conversation. Accept that jokes, small talk, rambling stories, and fond reminiscence can provide comfort, but interrogation — however well-meant — often provokes pain without purpose. It’s not always better to talk out all our feelings. It’s not always kinder to ask that others do so.
3. The fifth wound. One of the hardest things about suffering is its length. One day follows the next with no end in sight. And even when you think you have endured the last of the pummeling, and you can rest for a moment and bind up your wounds, you get kicked again. The first four of Christ’s wounds are the gashes driven into His body by the nails that held Him to the cross. These were in some sense necessary for Him to be crucified; once He heard His sentence, He could expect them. But the fifth wound, from the spear piercing Jesus’ side after His death — that one seems especially gratuitous.
And yet it was from this fifth wound and not the others that blood and water flowed, making Jesus’ body a Communion cup to feed and transform His followers. Perhaps, therefore, there is meaning and purpose even in those moments when we feel blindsided by “extra” suffering, by pain above and beyond what we’ve been able to prepare ourselves for, beyond what we can understand.
4. A great reckoning in a little room. My best friend made fun of me recently because I consistently put off confession — I dread it: I purposely oversleep or come up with excuses to avoid it — and I consistently come back from confession talking about how much better I feel. And I know that this almost always happens, yet I persist in acting the fool.
In the first week of Lent I was still delaying, even though I knew that avoiding confession was a major reason my Advent and Christmas season this year had been unusually unpleasant. I prayed, and found my prayers constantly returning to my fears and shame around confession. Finally I prayed the Anima Christi, probably the prayer I love most. And when I got to the line, “Within thy wounds hide me,” I suddenly pictured a small space, a warm, close place in which I could shelter. I pictured the wound as a confessional. In this place I could be cleansed in the blood of the Lamb.
Possibly I have an overly gothic imagination; but this fairly graphic image was a major part of the reason I finally pulled myself together and confessed my sins. And yes, I was much happier and more at peace once I’d done it.
5. Wound as vocation. The Gospels are full of miracles of healing. Isaiah tells us, of the Suffering Servant, that “by His stripes we are healed.” We pray for healing for ourselves and for those we love.
But it seems to me that the Gospels offer another way of thinking about the future of our wounds. Maybe they are not all destined to be healed. Maybe, like the wounds of the resurrected Christ — those same wounds that were investigated by St. Thomas — some of our wounds will be glorified.
I do know that if some of our wounds are glorified while others are healed, we won’t be the ones who pick which is which. The vulnerabilities we wish to keep may be denied us, as with the medieval saints who prayed for illness so that they could suffer with Christ. The temptations, tendencies, thorns in the flesh of which we are most ashamed may be the ones that God wants to remain with us throughout our lives, whereas other temptations that brought us a double-edged but real joy may be snatched away.
Perhaps we need a variant of the Serenity Prayer: “Lord, please give me the willingness to be healed in the ways you wish to heal me, the courage to accept the ways you wish to glorify my wounds, and the wisdom to know the difference.”