Indeed, while we are still alive, we are continually being handed over to death, for the sake of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus, too, may be visible in our mortal flesh.—2 Corinthians 4:11
St. Teresa of Avila once said to God, after being thrown from a carriage and landing in the mud, “If this is how You treat Your friends, it’s no wonder You have so few.” Today we celebrate the Feast of St. James the Greater, the brother of St. John the Evangelist, the two sons of Zebedee. St. James and his brother, along with St. Peter, had the distinction of being the “big three” among the Apostles. They were the “inner circle”, so to speak. They were there for the Transfiguration, for the raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead, and for Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.
One might naturally suppose that when you’re “friends with the King” you’d be treated like royalty! Life should be easy! Growing up Pentecostal, I heard many irresponsible preachers claim things just like that—we’re children of God, so we deserve to live like royalty; Jesus suffered and died so we wouldn’t have to; etc. In today’s Gospel, James and his brother have just such a naturalistic understanding of Jesus’ Lordship (as does their mother!), as they ask that they have the privilege of sitting at Jesus’ right and left hand in His kingdom. He immediately redirects them to His suffering—not to assure them that because He’s going to suffer, they could be assured of those positions, but just the opposite, that to be worthy of those positions, they too would have to suffer like Him—and even then, that wasn’t a guarantee of such great honour! And indeed, as the Acts of the Apostles tell us, St. James was the first of the Apostles to suffer martyrdom for Christ, being put to death by the sword by King Herod. St. Teresa, it seems, got off easy in the mud!
How many times in our spiritual lives are we tempted to look at our circumstances, our sicknesses, our suffering, our job loss, our pain of whatever sort, and think that God doesn’t love us, or that He is punishing us for something, or that He “owes” us because we’re “such good Catholics”? How could He treat us this way? I know that I’d surely rather be able to have a happy family, a steady job, and be debt free, rather than childless and my own workplace closing and relocating to Texas! And I could give you plenty of reasons why God should “owe” me for all the great things that I’ve done for Him!
If I’m truly honest in my examination of conscience, though, I realise in all humility that, rather than being some shining example of heroic sanctity, the truth is I’m a spiritual chump who quite frankly deserves everything I get. And yet, that’s not the whole story, either. With the pain comes grace, if we let it. St. Peter teaches us that through our suffering we are freed from sin (1 Peter 4:1). In today’s first reading, St. Paul writes that our suffering, when borne for Christ, shows forth His dying in our bodies, in the hope and promise that His rising will show forth in our bodies, too. And so, rather than whining about how God could let these things happen to His friends, we need to recognise that God sends these sufferings into our lives because we’re His friends. Through them, He purifies us. Through our weaknesses, He shows forth His strength.
When we suffer, let us remember that we are indeed merely jars of clay that His all-surpassing power shines through. As such, we will be hope for a world that suffers alone. “You see, everything is for your benefit, so that as grace spreads, so, to the glory of God, thanksgiving may also overflow among more and more people” (2 Corinthians 4:15).
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