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When God Doesn’t Make Sense

Making Sense of Suffering and Death

Dear OLPH Family,

Some news we post on FaceBook, when we want the whole world to know! Well, at least all of our “friends.” Other news, we might share only with family. Still other matters may only be confided to a confidant. Today, we gain a real window into Jesus’ identity through a moment shared privately with Peter, James and John - his closest friends.

When we read the Gospels, it is valuable to attend to the audience. Who is Jesus addressing? Who is in the room? Some popular options: the scribes and Pharisees, the crowds, the disciples, the apostles. Sometimes Jesus is out in public; other times he is teaching in a private home; our Lord also purposefully takes people aside for a one-on-one encounter, to speak with them or heal them alone, away from others. (See Jn 4, next week’s Gospel!)

One of the principles in our Lenten Message Series, When God Doesn’t Make Sense, is that the Scriptures grant us access to the heart of God, when we read them from the heart of the Church. So it is important to attend to those little details in the text that might at first seem unimportant. It matters greatly to whom Jesus is speaking.

Today we find Jesus up a mountain, with only his closest friends. Up the mountain, Jesus’ divinity shines through his humanity. His identity is revealed as He takes his place between Moses - the great Lawgiver and Elijah - the great prophet. The Father’s voice from heaven commands the three amigos: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Mt 17:5). In the midst of his miraculous and awesome moment, the Father beseeches this intimate audience, to listen. 

Trick is we gotta go back to the previous chapter to recall what Jesus has been teaching them. Back in Caesarea Philippi, Peter confessed that Jesus is the Christ the Son of the living God. Jesus has promised Peter the keys of the kingdom and that Christ will found his church on the Peter, the Rock. (Petros or Cephas means “rock” in Latin and Greek, respectively.) Yet immediately Matthew adds, “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised,” (Mt 16:21). Christ seeks to deepen their understanding that discipleship means self-denial, carrying our crosses, and embracing suffering as Christ embraced his suffering for the salvation of the world.

The glory on the mountain serves as a lucid beacon to illuminate the other side of the cross. Christ’s glory is revealed to these chosen men in order to strengthen their nerve to journey with to the Cross. Despite this awesome transfiguring episode, only John remains the ever faithful and so “beloved” disciple.

As we meditate on the meaning of suffering and death, we recognize that God did not make death. Aspects of the world exist as a result of human freedom, and God’s respect for that freedom, which would not be as our good Lord designed things. But there is another side to suffering and death. Jesus’ passion and death is transformed in the glory of the resurrection, which we will celebrate at Easter.

New life in Christ awaits all who embrace the conditions of discipleship: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,* take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it,” (Mt 16:24-25). Sometimes those are crosses of our own choosing, like our plan of fasting and sacrifice for Lent. But often our crosses are presented as trials in life: cancer, arthritis, divorce, unemployment, loneliness - a list too long to enumerate. 

Just as the transformation of Jesus’ human nature cannot happen apart from his Passion, so too our transformation occurs through our sufferings, our Good Fridays. We become the best version of ourselves when we embrace the crosses that life places in our path… especially when we do so with great love!

On the other side of his suffering and death is life. And what’s true for Jesus is true for us. There is no reasonable explanation for so much suffering and for the deaths of many people we know. It's not logical, rational, reasonable. But it is life. What we do know, what our faith tells us and the cross assures us, is that suffering and death are not the only word, or the last word. Life wins, because of the cross, life wins.

Yours in the Lord,

Fr. Joel Wilson