Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Diakonia and Suffering

This particular musing is for the Christian who suffers. It is for the pastor who fights the good fight and is persecuted for the work he is doing. All of us have a common response to hardship and suffering: we hate it. We want it to disappear, and nothing is more disheartening than getting a swift kick for trying to do things the right way--the way of the church catholic. The pastor bears a particular burden that is often associated with the office in which God has placed him.

The Christian layperson will struggle as well. Suffering is not unique to the pastoral office. One may look at the long line of faithful martyrs in church history to see that being united to Christ will bring forth wounds of their own. This particular article, therefore, deals with how the church catholic dealt with suffering.

This author wants to start, oddly enough, with something that takes place during Advent. In the third week of Advent it has been a liturgical custom for centuries that the church observe what has been called "The Ember Days." Originally, the Ember Days were an occasion of thanksgiving for the three great harvests of wheat, grapes, and olives--all very meaningful nature symbols employed by the liturgy. In the Offertory procession the "faithful" brought their tithes of the harvest to be used for the offering then and there, for the support of the Church, and for the poor. Hence, the Ember days were opportunities for the "faithful" to extend themselves to the poor and those in need.

Since this is the Pentecost season, it is best to leave a discussion of the Ember days for one of the Pentitential seasons, but it it is needful for our purposes today to mention that the Ember days were three days of fasting. St. Leo the Great who was Pope in the 400's has some very good sermons for the Ember days. Here is a quote from one of those sermons:

"With the anxious solicitude proper to us as the shepherd of your souls, we urge upon you the rigid observance of this December fast. The month of December has come round again, and with it this devout custom of the Church. The fruits of the year now drawing to a close have all been gathered in, and therefore meetly do we offer our abstinence to God as a sacrifce of thanksgiving. What can be more useful than fasting?..."

A paragraph later St. Leo continues, "But since fasting is not the only means to secure health for our souls, let us adorn our fasting with works of mercy. Spend in good deeds what you withdraw from suerfluidity. Our fast must be turned into a banquet for the poor. Let us devote time and effort to the underprivileged, the widow and the orphan; let us show sympathy to the afflicted and reconcile the estranged; provide lodging for the wanderer and relieve the oppressed; give clothing to the naked and cherish the sick."

In other words, St. Leo is giving counsel and exhibiting that he is a pastoral theologian. He understands that fasting is difficult for the body and, consequently, difficult for the soul. Fasting leads the Christian to cry out for Christ. So, what is at the heart and center of St. Leo's encouragement for the Christian to extend himself to the poor and needy at this time?

This author surmises that it has something to do with how a person tends to react during difficulty and suffering (upomeno). Because of our sinfulness, we tend to have a reaction of frustration and even anger. We may become unpleasant, short tempered and bombastic. Suffering causes us to look inward and see how bad we have it. When we do this, we are forgetting that it is God who allows us to suffer, not in order that we may be miserable but that we may look outward in our focus and seek Jesus all the more. In fact, the Greek word for suffering (upomeno), among other things, takes up the meaning "patient endurance." The root word, meno, means "to remain."

It is this author's opinion that what St. Leo is doing in his Ember day sermon is encouraging the Christians to extend themselves to others when they suffer in order that they will not go inward in their focus and become despairing. It is a way of "remaining with patient endurance"(upomeno) during difficult times.

The point of this particular article is to encourage the Christian, pastor and laity alike. Certainly fasting is a worthy exercise for the Christian, and Advent and the Ember days are good times to reflect in expectation and repentance. The emphasis of this musing is to highlight the importance of this mindset and practice all throughout the Church's liturgical year. This way of thinking is for whenever the Christain suffers. Is the pastor having a lot of trouble in his parish because he is trying to teach and practice faithfully? Is the Christian mother or father having familial difficulties due to differences in "spirituality?" Are Christian parents suffering because their teachings to their children are being compromised by society? Or is Satan pushing on you because you are yoked to Christ through baptism?

Anger, hate, verbal explosions, short temperedness and all sorts of negative behavior due to suffering will not help you. In fact, it will compound your problems. Jesus allows suffering for the Christian in order that we might cling less and less to this world and our existence in it. Hebrews 12:5 reminds us that suffering is the Lord's instruction. This is why St. Paul can say to the Philippians, "For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better" (Philippians 1:21-23).

If one thinks about it, St. Leo's instruction to serve the poor and needy is the very action of saying that the things of this world are not the most important thing to us. It even communicates to Satan that we do not regard our present suffering as anything compared to the glories of the kingdom. Hence, St. Paul's statement to the Romans, "For I consider that the suffering of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us"(Romans 8:18).

What can people do in the church in the midst of suffering? The pastor should extend himself to others in kindness and service in spite of his desire to say "to hell with it." All Christians, clergy or laity, could visit the sick, the shut-ins, and help those in need.

St. Leo, in my opinion, was not leading people to their own works as a means of comfort. Instead, he was encouraging the Christians not to despair in the mist of suffering because despairing is destructive to the faith as we see with Judas Iscariot. Instead, serving others is meant to promote the ecclesial love of Christ, helping us to direct our focus to heaven as we put off the things of this world.

Jesus loves His saints and He only desires that they cry out to Him for salvation (for salvation comes only through the merits of Christ) and in service and love for their fellow man (the fruit of salvation).

The blesssing of Jesus be upon all of you as you continue en odw tou Xristou (on the road of Christ).

+Fr. Chadius