My thoughts and reflections on my Catholic Faith, Fulton Sheen, the problem of suffering, and books

Thursday, December 27, 2012

On Suffering, Christmas, and a Baby born to Suffer

"A Child is born to us, and a Son is given to us" (Is. 9:6)!  A very merry and blessed Christmas to all my faithful readers!  (From your not-so-faithful author.)

Throughout our country, especially in Newtown, Connecticut, people are asking "Why?"  Why are twenty schoolchildren--little kindergartners, first-graders, second-graders--killed ten days before Christmas?  And I know the tragedy is making our country erupt in debates over gun control, mental health care, etc.; but that won't bring those children back.  It won't help their families.

There is only one thing that can give solace to the grieving families right now.  And that is faith.  Faith that there is a God, faith that that God knows what it is to suffer, faith that there is an afterlife.  Hope that those little innocents are spending this Christmas in Heaven with the Baby Who came to this world not to live but to die (Fulton Sheen, Life of Christ). 

And I pray to God that this year's Holy Innocents, the 20 schoolchildren gunned down twelve days ago, are enjoying their first Christmas in Heaven.  I pray that the Mother of that Baby King, she who had to live each day with the knowledge that her Boy had come to die, will hold their families close, and draw them ever closer to her Son.  Because that's what Mary does: she directs everything--every word of praise we give her for saying to being the Mother of God--back to her Son.  None of the praise and honor is for her; it's for Him.
Even Mary--the purest, holiest creature God ever created--experienced suffering at what should have been a joyful time--the Birth of her Baby, Who is God.  She had to face Joseph's doubts and suspicion when he found out she was pregnant; she had to make the long, difficult journey to Bethlehem; she had to give birth to the Son of God in a filthy stable; and when her Baby was, in the words of Fulton Sheen, too young to wear a crown, His Life was sought by murdering Herod.

Why all this suffering?  Our Lord suffered; and what are we to do when we face suffering at Christmas time?  Fr. Benedict Groeschel, in his book A Priest Forever: the Life of Father Eugene Hamilton, has this to say about Christmas and the mystery of suffering:
Christmas is a strange holiday.  It is not only the liturgical commemoration of the birth of our Savior; it also represents an attempt by the ancient Church to baptize the winter holiday of pagan times.  Coupled with the supernatural joy of the Nativity of the Son of God in the humblest of circumstances, with the contrast of angels and shepherds, there is all the noise and tinsel of the winter solstice.  It is a very difficult thing to be poor at Christmas, and even more trying to be very ill.  When a dear one is very ill, or deeply disturbed, or in danger in military combat, or undergoing some deep catastrophe, this holiday can be very bitter indeed.  To be dying at Christmas is a mystery all its own.  Christmas celebrations may cruelly accent one's isolation from the rejoicing crowd.  But when one has been blessed with firm faith and understands the reason of the Emmanuel's birth among us, then Christmas can have a special depth only to those who see the shadow of the Cross over the Manger.  During the Second World War the English spiritual writer Caryll Houselander summarized this mysterious conflict of joy and sorrow in a book with the striking title The Passion of the Infant Christ.  She reminder her wartime readers that even when Christ was born, the dark aspects of human existence were around Him.  His family fled for their lives as refugees.  He was desperately poor.  The Cross was always there in the life of Jesus Christ.
As Caryll Houselander helped English Catholics see that suffering was present even in the Life of the Infant Christ, so too did my favorite author--the Venerable Fulton Sheen--help American Catholics see that their Baby King was not free from suffering.  The best way to share this with y'all is with an excerpt from my Senior Thesis:

*Excerpt from "Redemptive Suffering in the Theology of the Servant of God Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen"*

Even as an Infant, Our Lord suffered humiliations that hinted at the humiliations of the Cross. Sheen sees the manger, the stable animals, and the swaddling clothes as foreshadowings of events surrounding His Death:
The manger and the Cross thus stand at the two extremities of the Savior's life! He accepted the manger because there was no room in the inn; He accepted the Cross because men said, We will not have this Man for our king. Disowned upon entering, rejected upon leaving, He was laid in a stranger‟s stable at the beginning, and a stranger‟s grave at the end. An ox and an ass surrounded His crib at Bethlehem; two thieves were to flank His Cross on Calvary. He was wrapped in swaddling bands in His birthplace, He was again laid in swaddling clothes in His tombclothes symbolic of the limitations imposed on His Divinity when He took a human form.22
These humiliations were only the beginning of a lifetime of humiliations that He would endure to atone for man‟s pride: "[T]his humiliation which began in Nazareth when He was conceived in the Virgin Mary was only the first of many to counteract the pride of man, until the final humiliation of the death on the Cross."23 According to Sheen, Our Lord could not teach the lesson of redemptive suffering by His words alone; He had to accept the Cross and live it in order to convince mankind of its necessity: "But He could not teach the lesson of the Cross as payment for sin; He had to take it. God the Father did not spare His Son, so much did He love mankind. That was the secret wrapped in the swaddling bands."24  The Infant King also accepted even physical sufferings, such as His Circumcision when He was only eight days old.

     Sheen had written earlier that the shedding of blood is the ultimate payment for sin, for sin is in the blood.25  In Life of Christ, he shows how Our Lord's Circumcision points directly to the ultimate shedding of His Blood on Calvary. At the tender age of eight days, the Christ Child is already beginning His work of redemption: "A Child only eight days old was already beginning the blood-shedding that would fulfill His perfect manhood. The cradle was tinged with crimson, a token of Calvary. The Precious Blood was beginning its long pilgrimage. . . . There had been sin in human blood, and now blood was already being poured out to do away with sin."26

     Even His Name, which He receives at His Circumcision, points to the Cross. Because Our Lord will redeem man by shedding His Blood to the last drop on Calvary, it is fitting that He receives His Name—"Jesus," or "Savior"—when He sheds His Blood for the first time: "[I]t was at this moment when He was anticipating Calvary by shedding His blood that the name of Jesus was bestowed on Him."27  This name is only applicable to Him as Man because "Jesus" means "Savior," and it is as Man that Our Lord saved men by His Death on the Cross: "Jesus was not a name He had before He assumed a human nature; it properly refers to that which was united to His Divinity, not that which existed from all eternity."28  In receiving His Name, Our Lord also received and embraced the end of His Life: "Once He received this name, Calvary became completely a part of Him. The Shadow of the Cross that fell on His cradle also covered His naming. This was 'His Father's business'; everything else would be incidental to it."29   As His Name points to His redemptive death, so too do other incidents in His Infancy.

    After His Circumcision when He was eight days old, the Infant Jesus is taken to the Temple when He is forty days old.  Sheen masterfully relates the Jewish emphasis on the firstborn as belonging especially to God, to the Divine Infant‟s special relation to the Father: "[W]hen the Divine Child was taken to the temple by Mary, the law of the consecration of the firstborn was observed in its fullness; for this Child's dedication to the Father was absolute, and would lead Him to the Cross."30  The elderly Simeon prophesies to His Mother: "Behold this child is set for the fall, and for the resurrection of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be contradicted."31  As a "sign which shall be contradicted," Our Lord dies on an instrument that itself is a contradiction: "It was fitting, therefore, that He should die on a piece of wood in which one bar contradicted the other. The vertical bar of God's will is negated by the horizontal bar of the contradicting human will."32

22 Fulton J. Sheen, Life of Christ, 29.
23 Ibid., 33.
24 Ibid.
25 Fulton J. Sheen, The Eternal Galilean, 215.  
26 Fulton J. Sheen, Life of Christ, 38.
27 Ibid.
28 Ibid., 30.
29 Ibid.
30 Ibid., 39.
31 Lk. 2:34.
32 Fulton J. Sheen, Life of Christ, 42.

God Love you!
A very merry and blessed Christmas to all of you and all of yours!

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