There is a loftiness to suffering for the kingdom of God that is somehow empowering and sustaining…
The morning after he was temporarily released from prison on bail, the former Hong Kong Chief Executive, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, headed straight to church to attend a morning Mass - together with an entourage of plain-clothes police bodyguards.
Let’s be clear: This is not the place to debate whether Tsang has been given a fair trial or whether he governed well while in power; nor are we interested in supporting or criticizing him as we reflect on the Mass readings of the 4th Sunday of Easter. Rather, the news about the former leader of Hong Kong is brought up because we see in it a very significant theological issue: After such a long period of suffering, after so many prayers have seemingly gone unanswered, and after so many lost political and legal battles, public humiliations and his eventual fall from grace, why is Tsang still faithful to God? Why doesn’t he abandon his faith when God appears to have abandoned him so many times already? To think about it, the question is a universal one - applicable not only to Tsang but also to all believers who suffer. And let’s face it, who doesn’t?
While it isn’t the intention of this Sunday’s Mass readings to give us a complete theological treatise on the problem of suffering, St. Peter, whose powerful proclamation of the gospel in the first reading has convinced “about three thousand persons” to repent and receive baptism (Acts 2:41), gives us an insightful exhortation in the second reading that enables us to understand why so many Christians like Tsang continue to trust God even when they can barely keep their heads above water. According to St. Peter, suffering for doing what is good is a grace before God (cf. 1 Pt 2:20). “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you,” he concludes (1 Pt. 2:21). Suffering for righteousness, in other words, is courageously embraced by Christians as a personal conviction – a noble calling to follow what Christ has done for all of us. There is a loftiness to suffering for the kingdom of God that is somehow empowering and sustaining, giving a faithful Christian the determination to accept any adversity – a resolve that borders on martyrdom.
Interestingly, Mother Teresa, who lived a life of extreme poverty and for whom suffering appeared to know no bounds, also viewed suffering as “the kiss of Jesus”; to her it was “a gift from God” (M. Gaitley, 33 Days to Morning Glory, p.69).
If such a realization sounds less than comforting – after all, nobody likes suffering – the gospel reading of this Sunday gives us the assurance that Jesus is our shepherd and we are his sheep; we shall fear no harm when he is at our side (cf. Ps. 23:4).