Thoughts on the Second Reading for The Solemnity of the Holy Trinity
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
The verb in “suffer with Him” is paschō, as in “paschal lamb,” the lamb offered, and it does not mean ‘to die” but rather “to endure” or “to undergo.” It is easy to see that Christianity was and is founded in the suffering of the great witnesses, the martyrs who loved not their lives unto death. The Roman Calendar rolls through their names from Agatha to Zephrinus, and these are but tokens of the thousands who died in unity with and imitation of our Savior Christ. In contra-distinction from the greatest modern theme, which is the assertion of the will, reasonably, in satisfaction of appetite, the religion of Jesus was a life of giving up one’s self. If the grain of wheat should die, it bears much fruit (John 12:24).
Most of the suffering upon which the Church is founded was and is not the dramatic suffering of the arena or the inquisitor’s fire but is rather the kind of suffering the world cannot see. Often it looks remarkably like the way of life that is routinely denounced as bourgeoise by those who have progressed beyond good and evil, by the ‘scientific’ community, and by economists and sociologists, who will call restraint and bearing up delayed gratification. But there is more to it than that, because the suffering that is the hallmark of the Christian life is born of love for God, self, and neighbor; it means giving up our desires not for the sake of commendable self-discipline or reasons of health or vanity, but out of love for god and a desire, however weak and wandering to share in the suffering of Jesus.
Every person born into this world is blessed with a vocation or a particular calling if they can find it, but the more universal vocation is the transposition of the self from one who is stuck in this world as it is, a world over which Satan roams until Christ return, into citizenship in the kingdom of the new heart, which means discovering in the morass of a fallen world the person whom God knew at the foundations of the world and finding his or her particular adventure, formed by discipline and loving obedience, toward glory
The Gospel of that famous eighteenth-century Frenchman Jean-Jacques Rousseau teaches that we are born innocent, born free but somehow now in chains, leaving those who believe this lie everlastingly befuddled because we know in our hearts this is not true and because experience in the world teaches otherwise, as do the pages of the newspaper and the gaze of the electronic eye. The Gospel of Jesus Christ tells another story, that we are born in humiliating, justly deserved slavery to the Lord of this world, into whose service we have passed as children of rebellion, but that we may be set free by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and life in the Spirit He sends. It is the great glory of the Christian religion that it teaches men and women that their just deserts as members of the rebel band is eternal loss, but that by grace we have been saved, transposed from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light and goodness, and that we gain true freedom by denying the self that is rooted in this fallen world.
Evil is never overcome without suffering, but the suffering that overcomes the world is sometimes hard to see. We do not think of the father who wakes up to another day of tasks he may not have chosen as suffering, but in his endurance is the pattern of the cross. We do not think of the person who chooses purity of heart over the satisfaction of appetite as suffering, but the Christian world is full of such offerings. We do not think of the wife who is faithfully loyal to a marriage that holds nothing of worldly satisfaction as a martyr, but so she is, and a very great witness. And the same is true of every person who has chosen to endure. Every acceptance of discipline and duty is for Christians a sharing in Christ’s enduring. Philo of Alexandria once wrote, “Be kind, everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”
It is the distinctive folly of our time to say to those embattled, “Give up.” Or perhaps to point out that there is no battle so that victory and defeat are meaningless. Naturalism is the doctrine that the world as we find it and ourselves as we find ourselves in the world are as these things should be. Remarkably, this program is not applied to nature itself, which is chopped and changed at will, but to the moral life of mankind, in which enterprise, dominated as it is by the naturalistic presupposition, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish the behavior of humans from the behavior of beasts.
The battle to elevate the relation between men and women to something holy on the part of the Church has been itself arduous and always only partly successful. But it has been among the greatest contributions to the gentling of the world that is sometimes mistakenly called Christian civilization, that is, a civilization sometimes influenced in the moment by Christian men and women. The dimensions of the disaster as that influence fails are difficult to grasp. Ours is a culture in which it is assumed that purity of heart even as an imperfectly grasped aspiration is impossible. What precisely is happening when behavior that until day before yesterday was punished by imprisonment is a condition so favored that the attempt to alter it is forbidden by law? What is happening when one great political philosophy has as its non-negotiable principle the right to destroy very small children. What is happening when a schoolboy, seventeen, kills because his feelings are hurt? What is happening when young women view as risible Paul’s advice that as the Church is subject to Christ, so let wives be subject to their husband in all things and when husbands are unwilling to hear that they are to love their wives as Christ loved the Church, being now too frequently ready to abandon rather than to suffer?
What one is witnessing is a civilization in which the habit of enduring on behalf of the good life which even the philosophers knew, and which was perfected by Christ as suffering on behalf of the holy life, is failing under the assaults of that naturalism which counsels relapse onto the condition of fallen nature which means calling what is evil good. This is a kind of great abandoning of the human estate, the essence of which is the ability by the exercise of will to rise above nature. The unqualified expectation of happiness in this world has led to unqualified disaster. To begin with the assumption that we are owed happiness, that our lives are supposed to be free of fear and free of want, is so unrealistic as to cause nothing but grief.
On this Trinity Sunday, it is good to recall that the very life of God insofar as it has been revealed to us, consists in mutual self-giving, a self-giving that when evil is encountered issues in suffering. The mystery of the suffering of Jesus who is God and man has ever engaged the mind of the Church. After the defeat in the early fifth century of the idea, an idea sponsored incidentally by the great archbishop of Constantinople Nestorius, that Jesus is part man and part God, with divine and human natures cooperating to effect incarnation, in favor of the truth that the union of the Word with human nature is real, personal, and eternal, after the reality of Incarnation was made dogma, it followed that the mystery of the suffering of Christ on the cross, a mystery in which the Second Person somehow participated, would come to the fore. The great Cyril of Alexandria did not write that he was able to describe this mystery, but he did insist that in our ignorance we ought never to deny that One Person of the Blessed Trinity suffered for our sakes.
Paul says that if we suffer with him, we shall also be glorified with him. The life of suffering with Christ, off enduring, may on a certain day seem to be nothing more than a trail of tears, or at least of inconveniences, when it is in fact a source of that hard-to-define word joy. As Paul says, we do not endure alone, but with Christ, with the comfort of His presence and His sacraments. There is something called a state of grace, a condition of being in God’s favor. Aristotle called it eudaimonia, or well-spiritedness. Jesus called it blessedness. Conscience can accuse, but conscience can also bless.