May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, oh Lord our strength and our redeemer.
I have to admit that I haven’t always got on too well with St Paul. There are the unfortunate comments about women… but mainly it is just he is so blooming sure of everything – particularly himself. As a lifelong Anglican I find this slightly alarming…
So when I first looked at tonight’s reading – I couldn’t get past Paul saying “If we are being afflicted it is for your consolation” – it all seemed a bit self important of Paul – and didn’t make a lot of sense.
Then someone asked me if I would visit her neighbour – a lady whose husband of nearly 60 years is in St Gemma’s hospice and very poorly.
So I went… nervous of finding the words to introduce myself to a complete stranger…wondering what I could possibly offer above the support her family and neighbours are already giving.
And I found – in her serene belief that her husband is in God’s hands; in her joy and encouragement in my new role; in her lifelong commitment to her church – that mysteriously, her affliction was for my consolation. I listened to her stories of a long happy marriage, I assured her I would add my prayers to hers, I think she appreciated my visit… but I came away inspired by her faith, and affirmed in my vocation.
So I went back to Paul and read again what he had after all discovered by experience – that if we rely on him, God consoles us in all our afflictions; that if we let him, although it is not always easy to see at the time, he is there in the worst that happens – and that if we accept this consolation, we will in our turn be able to console others.
Paul was living at a time when illness or suffering were seen as signs of God’s anger at something you had done. Today the world seems to want to splash suffering across our screens so the horror can be shared in an almost ghoulish way – or, when it is closer to home, deny that suffering is happening as we offer our sanitized ‘happy’ lives on social media.
So the idea of finding consolation in suffering is perhaps just as counter-cultural now as it was then. May be we need to learn what Paul learned.
That your patient acceptance of chronic pain, disability, the tribulations of parenthood or of growing older can be a consolation to others just by your example.
Your survival of bereavement, family break-up, random accident with the ability still to share the words of the creed and sing God’s praises mean that you are equipped to console others in their grief and bewilderment.
I read somewhere the saying – ‘God does not comfort us to make us comfortable – but to make us comforters’. I think I would rather say “God comforts us NOT ONLY to make us comfortable – but ALSO to make us comforters” but this is what Paul discovered ‘our affliction is for your consolation’ The word translated here as consolation can apparently mean ‘to come alongside’ – and somehow being comforted by God allows us to come alongside others in their grief and suffering and pass on that comfort.
For us as Christians it goes deeper than that, because we believe in an incarnate God – God who does not take away our suffering – but who shares it. There was a short period in my life, when I found faith difficult, and one of the few bible passages that made much sense was Jesus on the cross calling out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
One who had suffered extreme physical pain, derision, denial by his friends and the black despair of feeling cut off even from God could surely understand how I felt. In his affliction was my consolation.
And this, of course, is the mystery at the heart of the Christian faith. The worst thing that could possibly happen – the death of the Son of God – was followed by his resurrection and thus the power of sin and death were overcome. Not only has Jesus experienced pain like our pain – his affliction was truly for our consolation and salvation.
As Christians when we meet with affliction, with difficulties – and we will, because that is what it means to be human – we have to learn to rely on Christ rather than ourselves. We have to accept his consolation, perhaps through others, perhaps through prayer, or the Eucharist.
I don’t for a moment believe that God sends suffering to teach us to rely on him – but often our learning of this lesson is accelerated when we suffer. And if we learn it well his consolation can overflow from us to others.
After the murder last week of Father Jacques Hamel, Matthew and I were reflecting on how ‘wearing the uniform’ can make us a target – even in the safety of Western Europe. We have had a faint glimpse of what Christians in Iraq and neighbouring countries are only too aware of – it is a dangerous time to be a Christian.
However, you could say it is a great time to be a Christian – A great time to share in a faith that can deal with suffering – because it is built on suffering – suffering that ultimately overcomes not only all suffering, but all hatred and all divisions
– a great time to know the God who in love suffers with us, consoles us and gives us the grace to console one another. In my suffering is your consolation – and in your suffering is my consolation.