Throughout our lives, and most especially in the season of Lent, the Church invites us to reflect upon and more fully share in the sufferings of Jesus. The practice of praying the Stations of the Cross is a characteristic of this Christian reflection. As we pray the Stations of the Cross, we walk station by station with Jesus as makes his via dolorosa to Calvary. As we go through life, and especially as we pass through Lent, we walk day by day with Jesus on that same journey. In our fasting, our almsgiving and our prayer, we seek to share more and more fully in the passion and death of our Lord, so that we might share more and more fully in his resurrection.
We share in Jesus’ suffering by identifying ourselves with him, seeking to enter into Jesus’ suffering so that our suffering can have the same redemptive meaning as his. But sharing in Jesus’ suffering is not primarily about what we do. It’s about what Jesus has done and what Jesus makes possible for us. Our sharing in Jesus’ suffering is only possible because Jesus has shared in our suffering.
Jesus shared in our suffering firstly by his incarnation, when he made our human nature his own. In Jesus, the Son of God has become fully human, and he has done so precisely in order to share our suffering. Consider these passages from the Letter to the Hebrews:
Jesus is human like us in every way. He was tempted like us (though without sin); he got hungry and thirsty like us; he felt sorrow and wept like us; he bled and died like us. Jesus knows through experience the full extent of human suffering. And because he is the all-knowing God, he also knows every detail of our personal sufferings. Therefore, he is able to sympathize with us, which means to suffer with us.
Jesus also shared our suffering by inviting us to unload our burdens onto him. This invitation comes to us from a gospel passage that I often read when administering the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick to patients in the health care centers served by Dominican Friars Health Care Ministry of New York:
Jesus invites us to come to him with our heavy burdens so that he can bear them with us. Jesus doesn’t promise to take our suffering away, but rather to take it on himself and to bear it with us. Yoked to Jesus, we will find that our heavy burdens have become light.
Finally, Jesus shares our suffering in his passion and death. John the Baptist calls Jesus “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). In his passion, Jesus took upon himself the sins of the whole world – the sins that are at the heart of the world’s suffering – much like the sins of Israel were placed upon the “scapegoat” on the Day of Atonement. Like the scapegoat that took the sins of Israel away into the desert, Jesus took away the sins of the world by his death (see Lev 16:20-22). As Saint Paul writes, “Obliterating the bond against us . . . he removed it from our midst, nailing it to the cross” (Col 2:14).
In all these ways and more, Jesus shared in our suffering. By sharing our suffering, Jesus enables us to share his suffering. Jesus has yoked us to himself through our baptism, making us members of the Church, which is his body. Jesus has united himself with us so that we can be united with him. He is with us when we suffer so that we can be with him, and so that our sufferings can share in the meaning and the value of his own.