With today, Trinity Sunday, the liturgical year continues into “ordinary time.” That’s a misleading title for this period. It’s intended to mean that we’re beyond the special season of Easter and have not yet entered the special season of Advent. Yet any part of the year in which believers practice the Christian faith is far from routine, mundane, or boring. The faith itself raises it above such mediocrity.
For me, the mystery of the Divine Trinity is the most inscrutable of the tenets of Christianity. Human reason cannot penetrate it. Viewed in human terms, it’s plainly impossible for three persons simultaneously to be one of something else. And before you ask: no, God is not a committee.
But there is more than one mystery to the Trinity. The “how,” as baffling as it is, is no more opaque than the “why.” Why “should” the Supreme Being be tripartite? Was it for the reason C. S. Lewis proposed: so that love would find expression in His very nature? That sounds good, certainly…but then we confront this: the mission of the Son to become mortal, then to suffer terribly and die as part of the Divine Plan for our Redemption. Can a Father who is love itself wish suffering upon His Son?
To say the least, this is not easily answered, if at all.
All any human being can say with confidence about suffering is this:
- We don’t like it;
- Sometimes it’s unavoidable.
The Problem of Pain and the Problem of Evil have been the critical stumbling blocks to the acceptance of Christianity for centuries. The Problem of Evil reduces to one Divine decision: the granting to men of free will in a temporal environment. The Problem of Pain is stiffer, for it involves suffering that might be wholly undeserved by human standards. The only explanation I can imagine is this: No matter how He might have written the laws for our universe, time itself would make suffering possible…and sometimes inevitable.
But when we contemplate suffering decreed by God the Father to be suffered by His Divine Son, the matter becomes much harder to explain.
I’ll pause here to say it baldly: I don’t have an answer for this aspect of the Trinitarian Mystery. What I know about suffering derives from experience in this temporal universe, where it’s simply something one can’t always avoid. We put a great deal of our effort into the avoidance and minimization of suffering. Yet with all our powers and knowledge, we can’t avert it in every instance. Neither can we always reduce it in magnitude.
It is our lot as mortal creatures to face certain inevitabilities. One of those is death. “To every man upon this earth, Death cometh soon or late,” said Macaulay’s Horatius, and it is so. And ironic though it may be, it’s those of us who resist that fate most successfully who are likely to suffer worst at the end.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet pondered whether death might not be “a consummation devoutly to be wished.” Some do yearn for it, especially those whose suffering is already great. But to him who faces a period of great[er] suffering as the inescapable antecedent, death will look far less “to be wished.” While it was the possibility of suffering after death that gave the Prince of Denmark pause, most of us must face the suffering of the body first.
Such a time of excruciating trial was what the Son of God faced as the conclusion to His mission of Redemption.
There’s not much more to be said about Jesus’s Father-decreed Passion of mortality, suffering, and death, except this: in all our world, only He knew with perfect knowledge that His suffering would end and be no more. Yes, in becoming mortal He was required to endure “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” (Damn, that Shakespeare guy could turn a phrase!) He would also undergo the most torturous death that era knew how to inflict. But He knew both the purpose of His suffering and the consequences for Mankind – and He accepted both as His Father’s will.
On occasion, we will know the reasons for our suffering, however much we dislike the experience. If it seems too difficult to bear, remember that a Son who knew both His Father’s will and His Father’s love bore it with love of His own.
Some essays are harder to write than others. I was just barely able to begin this one. I hope my labors have been to your profit.
Preach Christ, always. And May God bless and keep you all.