SIXTEENTH SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME (C)
"Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ..."
Our second reading today from Colossians 1:24-28 begins with these words from St. Paul. They can be troubling for many Christians. "What is lacking in the afflictions of Christ..." Whatever can St. Paul mean? Is he saying that Christ's sacrifice for us was not not complete? Is he saying that more is needed? It certain sounds that way.
As Catholics, we are sometimes accused by our Protestant brothers and sisters of denying the efficacy of Christ's single sacrifice. He died once on Calvary in a perfect sacrifice which was sufficient for the salvation of all men, yet we Catholics claim that our Mass is also a sacrifice, an offering of the Body and Blood of Christ to the Father over and over again. It is as if we are denying that the unique sacrifice of Jesus was good enough.
Of course that is not what we believe at all. We do believe, along with our Protestant brethren, that Christ's sacrifice on the cross was universal and complete, sufficient reparation for the sins of all humanity. We do not "re-sacrifice" Him in the Mass. Rather, the sacrifice presented in the Mass is the same sacrifice of our Lord at Calvary, re-presented (made present to us today) in and through the Mass. The bread and wine we offer become through Christ's words of consecration and the power of the Holy Spirit the same flesh and blood that was offered on our behalf on the first Good Friday. Thus we in the year 2013 are able to participate in Christ's single, timeless offering of Himself nearly 2000 years ago. When you are at Mass, you are at the foot of the cross.
St. Paul's comment about filling up what is lacking in Christ's sufferings can be similarly misunderstood. Again, we believe that Christ's sacrifice is universally sufficient and complete. Nothing is lacking in His suffering - except for perhaps one thing. And that is our acceptance of it.
It has often been said that "God is a lover, not a rapist." He does not force Himself upon us, but He lovingly invites us into relationship with Him. God made us as beings with intelligence and free will. The Catechism teaches us that God "enables men to be intelligent and free causes in order to complete the work of creation" (CCC 307). That applies equally to the work of our salvation. The Catechism goes on to say that we can "enter deliberately into the divine plan by [our] actions, [our] prayers, and [our] sufferings" (CCC 307).
The Catechism reaffirms that "the cross is the unique sacrifice of Christ" who is "the one mediator between God and man." But because He has united Himself to us, "the possibility of being made partners" in His sacrifice is offered to us. This is what it means when Christ invites us to take up our own cross and follow Him (CCC 618).
We Catholics are also sometimes accused of thinking we can "earn our way into heaven" with our good works. Certainly good works are an important part of the Christian life and a means of becoming holy people. But we can never "earn" anything by them in God's eyes, and this is not Catholic teaching. Suggesting we can "earn" something from God implies an equality between man and God which is not there. When I do a job for someone, I expect to be paid for it, because I and my employer are equal in our dignity; my time may be traded for his treasure because there is an equality of value there. But nothing is equal between man and God. There is nothing we could ever do that would put God in the position of owing us anything.
But that is us. Christ is another matter. Christ, while being fully man (and thus able to suffer and to die) is also fully God. As God Himself, Christ's actions can be meritorious before God and this is precisely why His suffering on the cross is meaningful. And here is the key in all of this. Through baptism, we have been joined to Christ. Our faith teaches that baptism makes us new creatures, members and co-heirs with Christ, and temples of the Holy Spirit (CCC 1265). Baptism, like all sacraments, conveys God's grace to us, and when we receive God's grace we receive His very life. God makes His home within us.
What this means is that whatever we do, we bring God with us. This has several effects. For one, it means that when we sin it is even more scandalous than before, because we bring God into our immorality. Thus St. Paul chastises the wayward Corinthians, "Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never!" (1 Cor. 6:15).
But it also has the wonderful effect of making God participants in our good works and in our sufferings. While our actions on our own can merit us nothing before God, when we act as Christians, as members of Christ's body, our good actions are 1% us and 99% Christ within us. Thus our good works can have merit, because they are the works of Christ.
So, too, with our suffering. For the Christian, suffering is not pain alone, but pain with meaning, pain with purpose, because it is pain also suffered by Christ. It becomes pain which can make us holy. And just as Christ's suffering is endured for the salvation of all men, our own suffering, joined with Christ, can aid in the salvation of others, as well.
This is what it means when we are told to "offer up" our suffering to Christ. It means we join our suffering to His, for the benefit of ourselves and of all humanity. It gives meaning and merit to our pain.
And thus we, like St. Paul, can fill up "what is lacking" in Christ's afflictions; for the only thing lacking in His perfect sacrifice is for us to participate fully in it; for us to climb up on that cross and suffer with Him. Christ cannot do this for us; but He can and does go before us. He shows us the end of suffering is joy, the end of death is resurrection. Let us take up our cross and follow Him to eternal life.