November-December 2019

Post date: Jan 21, 2020 9:13:12 PM

Over the last few years, I have said several times in conversations that one of the reasons that I enjoy reading Fr. Stephen Freeman’s articles is that he is able to put into words things that are only rough ideas in my head. I recently found another occasion to say that. In a comment on a recent article, he wrote: “Being able to live with suffering – because it’s the right thing to do – an obedience to the commandments of God – [i[s pretty anti-modern. So, my repentance begins with working at accepting my own suffering with thanksgiving and to labor for others in theirs.” .

The quote above may seem strange at the beginning of an article for the period leading to Christmas. It is, after all, a time where we are invited to think happy thoughts, sing happy songs, and buy happiness. But what is this happiness supposed to be? After all, the concept of happiness is deeply embedded in American history, with the “pursuit of happiness” being described as an inalienable right.

One way to look at happiness is to equate it to pleasure and, as a corollary, the avoidance of pain and suffering at any cost. Yet one could just look around and see how easily evil can find its way into such an understanding and how fleeting such a happiness truly is.

From a Christian perspective, a better way of looking at happiness is through the lens of the Psalm 1, which begins "Blessed is the man." The Greek word translated as 'blessed' is μακάριος, which in most circumstances is translated as 'happy.' And who does Psalm 1 say this blessed man is? He is one who "has not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, and has not stood in the way of sinners, and has not sat in the seat of evil men. But his pleasure is in the law of the Lord; and in his law will he meditate day and night."

Quintessentially, the man spoken of in the psalm is Christ, the one who delighted in and fulfilled God's law. And, as we know, this involved suffering; a suffering foretold very soon after His birth.

We don’t even have to dive deep into theological matters to begin finding a connection between Jesus's birth and His suffering. The carol “I wonder as I wander” repeatedly says

I wonder as I wander out under the sky

How Jesus my Saviour did come for to die

The Incarnation of the Son of God leads to His Passion. However, the suffering is not restricted to Him alone. The Theotokos received this message very soon after giving birth to Jesus: “Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed (Lk. 2:34-35).” When she had said to the archangel, “Be it done to me according to your word,” the Theotokos willingly accepted to become the mother of the Father’s Son, with everything that brought about, including a mother’s share in her Son’s suffering.

There is no question that the Incarnation and Passion are closely connected: the Son was incarnate so that humanity might be restored and that restoration could only be accomplished through suffering. Like the Theotokos, the Son also willingly accepted everything that was to come for the salvation of the world. Several texts, both in Scripture and the services of the Church make that abundantly clear.

In the garden of Gethsemane, we see the humanity of Jesus assenting to the divine will: “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will” (Matt. 26:39). This is not the cheap assent of someone who does not know what is coming or who will only pretend to undergo the sufferings to come (as some have tried to claim in every age since the Incarnation). It is, rather, the assent of someone who understands the purpose of that suffering and is willing to bear in order to bring that end about. Jesus reiterates His willing bearing of the upcoming suffering when Peter attempts to prevent His capture. Jesus tells him: “Put your sword into the sheath. Shall I not drink the cup which My Father has given Me?” (Jn. 18:11)

At Saturday Vespers in Mode 2, one of the hymns says “It was the will of God to be born, and you most pure Virgin, have carried him, an infant in your arms” (Saturday evening Vespers, aposticha, mode 2, Both now…). We sing the previous verse roughly every eight weeks, so we are reminded of this teaching of the Church at least that often. As God, the Son knew what was to happen and we are told that it was His will for the Incarnation (and, therefore, the Passion) to occur. The Son was not forced by the Father to do that which the Father willed. Rather, the Son Himself willed that which would lead to the salvation of humanity.

So, we find in Christ a suffering willingly undertaken for love of God, His law, and His creation. Throughout the ages, each saint has also willingly taken up suffering - for his or her salvation or for the salvation of others. I pray that, by God's grace, we follow the example of Christ and His saints and choose that which fulfills God's commandments, that which is good, that which is holy, over that which is easy and over our own desires when they would direct us otherwise. Paradoxically, in this way we also become μακάριοι and are able to fully partake of the joy of the season.

With love in Christ,

+Fr. Peter