In one of the most celebrated stories in the life of Christ (recorded in Matthew 16:13–28), Jesus asked his disciples about the scuttlebutt. “Who do people say I am?”
His closest followers answered, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
It’s not as if Jesus didn’t know what people were saying about him. You don’t have to be omniscient to realize what the rumor mill probably says about you.
Because Jesus never did anything without a purpose, he likely asked his original question to set the stage for his next inquiry. “Who do you say that I am?”
At this point, the fisherman Peter spoke up and professed his faith, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus affirms Peter’s reply and blesses him with the keys to the kingdom. All Christians recognize this as a pivotal event, and in Catholicism, this incident comprises the foundation of the papacy.
Peter’s confession, however, is not the end of the story. Immediately thereafter, the Galilean began a new phase of his teaching. “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21).
Of course, this idea bothered and confused the disciples. Peter even reproached the one whom he had just affirmed to be the Son of the living God, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” In one of the greatest ironies of all scripture, Peter tells his Lord, “No.”
Jesus, though, would hear none of it. “But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Using the most shocking language imaginable, Jesus describes Peter as Satan. He who had just received the keys had become the adversary interfering with the ways of God.
Understandably, Peter chafed at the thought of the Jesus undergoing suffering. How is it possible the Christ, the Son of the living God, could experience the agony of his Passion?
We can sympathize with Peter. The idea of a suffering Savior sounds as frightening as it is preposterous. A suffering savior? The Son of God can feel intense pain and anguish? Maybe he didn’t really mean it. Perhaps he would just appear to suffer and not actually experience the full extent of torment it would seem.
In their first few centuries, Christians wrestled with this too. How can the Son of God suffer? Some Christians asserted that Christ did not suffer because he only appeared to come in the flesh.
The mainstream Christian tradition rejected this position that became known as Docetism. In the second century, Origen, in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew asserted, “the impassible one suffered by being compassionate.”
Christ’s suffering is real; it’s not a fake or pseudo-suffering. The life of Christ is not like some perverse Instagram account where he filters his life to make it appear he suffers.
In his solidarity with humanity, Christ suffers with us. It began at when the archangel Gabriel told Joseph, “You shall call his name Immanuel, which means God with us.” God in Christ truly suffers with us.
After Peter’s confession, Jesus showed his disciples the many things that he must suffer. His suffering was imperative. By not simply going through the motions, he expressed and experienced unity with us.
The good news is that he not only shares in our sufferings, but that by sharing in our sufferings, we share in his resurrection.
The First Epistle of St. Peter puts it like this, “But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed” (1Peter 4:13). Solidarity in suffering ensures a share of his exaltation.
Divine-human solidarity is the mystery at the heart of the Christian faith.
That solidarity comes with an ethical dimension. Those who believe in Christ’s union with them have a duty to live in unity with others. Jesus famously taught his followers that their service to “the least of my brothers and sisters” equated to serving him. That service, or lack of it, would be the criteria by which he would ultimately judge his followers (Matthew 25).
These days we’re all immersed in the existential stress of COVID-19. Fear, worry, unemployment, financial strain, political machinations, and social upheaval are the realities of our age.
Besides the COVID crisis, we all have our own personal suffering.
In the past three years, I have experienced suffering unlike anything I had previously known. I began experiencing symptoms of a rare neurological disorder that causes chronic pain in my legs and feet. As a result of becoming disabled, I no longer work as a teacher in my beloved profession.
Six months ago, my mother died after suffering from lung cancer and COPD. It happened early in the coronavirus quarantines, so my family and I decided it would be best from me not to travel across the country to attend her funeral.
Two months later, my 18-year-old son died unexpectedly (not due to the virus). Since then, I have experienced grief, depression, anxiety, and severe flashbacks due to PTSD.
In the age of coronavirus and in my personal suffering, I’m convinced more than ever that the sufferings of Christ provide consolation and hope: consolation in knowing that Christ suffers with us and hope in believing that our sufferings like his are not the end. As he affirmed, “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
The ethical demands of suffering during the pandemic call on those who are not sick or who are at lower risk to perform actions that minimize the spread of the virus. At minimum, this includes very basic behaviors like wearing masks and washing hands. Solidarity in mask-wearing is union with Christ.
Checking in on people who are quarantined is a way to lower the loneliness of people who feel isolated. Governments can provide relief measures, and large businesses can provide access to essential services to people in need.
Christ demonstrates that suffering cannot be avoided. However, he assures us that suffering is not the end. We all suffer, but the essence of Christian faith is the assurance that God’s solidarity with us in our suffering results in resurrected life.