St. Paul makes a spectacular claim in this Sunday’s second reading: There is something lacking in Christ’s sufferings. How could this be? How could Christ’s suffering on the Cross be lacking anything? Where could we possibly find a better example of a complete gift of self, a total outpouring of love? What more perfect suffering could there possibly be than that of the only Son of God?
When St. Paul says that he is filling up what is lacking in Christ’s suffering, he is not saying that there is anything imperfect in Christ’s suffering, or that somehow his own suffering is better than Christ’s, but rather that Christ’s suffering, His redemption of us poor sinners, must be extended through time. What is lacking in Christ’s suffering is that it be made to apply to us, since it was for us in the year 2019, as well as people of all times and places, for whom Christ desired to suffer on the Cross. Yes, as he suffered on the Cross, Christ thought even of you as He gave His life out of love for the whole world.
There are two principal ways in which Christ’s sufferings are made present in time. The first is through our daily sufferings. Every time that we make a small sacrifice or forgo our own desires out of love for another and for Christ we participate in His sufferings, which means that not only do we participate in His suffering, but we also participate in His redemption. Those sufferings become sources of grace for us and for those for whom we offer them.
When we speak about “daily sufferings,” we can think of them in two ways. First, we have the sufferings and trials that are inevitably a part of life. On this side of the veil, life is imperfect. Living in imitation of Christ, though, means that the little imperfections that come our way without us seeking them out can be transformed into a source of grace for us and for others. Uniting this experience of earthly imperfection with Christ on the Cross allows us to “fill up what is lacking” by applying His redemption to ourselves.
Secondly, “daily sufferings” can also mean the sufferings that we intentionally seek out. St. Josemaria Escriva once said that anyone who eats a meal without making some small sacrifice (not as much jam on your toast, not as much salt on your meat, an apply instead of a dessert) eats like a pagan. Seeking these small penitential disciplines is called mortification. Literally, it means putting to death. By these small sacrifices (in the way we eat, our posture while we sit, the clothes we choose to wear, the way we choose to drive, and many other possibilities) we put to death the old man of sin within us and rise to newness of life with Christ.
While every day is a good day for these mortifications, a particularly important day to seek them out is Friday, the day of the week upon which our Savior rose for our salvation. This is why Holy Mother Church directs that we offer some sacrifice every Friday, because through suffering, Christ’s redemption is made known. During the season of Lent that Friday sacrifice is directed as giving up meat, but during the rest of the year we can choose another sacrifice. But we are still obligated to choose some sacrifice every Friday of the year in order that we might participate in Christ’s sufferings out of love for Him and love for those for whom we offer up these voluntary sufferings. Unfortunately, our culture has adopted Friday as the beginning of the “weekend,” a highly secularized concept that has done great damage to Christian practice, but as Catholics, we should re-adopt Friday as a day of penance and Sunday as a day of celebration. This practice is much more likely to be successful when it is consistent. If we pick something different each Friday, we are not likely to be very successful because it will be hard to remember. The easiest way of all, in my experience, is to adopt the traditional custom of meatless Fridays, but there are other weekly Friday penances that could be possible too. Regardless, the Church takes seriously this obligation to some weekly penance, teaching that to ignore it entirely would be a mortal sin.
The days of the week for penance and celebration are also part of the larger rhythm of the Church’s life. If you visit a monastery, you will notice that the monks’ lives are governed by the Church year. During Lent, they fast every day (having only one full meal). However, on feasts and solemnities, that discipline is relaxed, both in terms of what they eat and in the amount of time dedicated to recreation or to conversation. Reproducing this rhythm of the Church’s liturgical year within the home serves as an excellent reminder of the primacy of Christ in our lives. I try to highlight major events within the Church year in my weekly bulletin columns, and you can also find liturgical calendars online and within our parish app. An example would be last Friday, the Solemnity of the Dedication of our Parish Church, on which we were not obliged to perform our normal Friday penances.
The other important way that Christ’s sufferings are extended in time is through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. At Holy Mass, we are transported to the foot of the Cross at Calvary, along with our Mother Mary and the Beloved Disciple, St. John, and we are fed with the fruit of that sacrifice, the very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ. The Holy Mass, then, is not a community gathering like any other we might attend. We should not see it primarily as an opportunity for socializing or even experiencing community. Rather, it is our opportunity to be at the foot of Calvary, to participate in Christ’s redeeming work through His death and resurrection, and to offer worship to Almighty God in thanksgiving for this immense display of love for us poor sinners. This is the core of the Holy Mass, and this is why it is so important that it is extended through time as the action of the Church makes present once again Christ’s most august sacrifice.
St. Paul tells us that through this extending of Christ’s sacrifice in time, “God chose to make known the riches of His glory.” This too is what happens at Holy Mass – we are simultaneously present at Calvary and also at the eternal banquet in Heaven. We join with the heavenly choirs of saints and angels as we sing the Sanctus, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts!” Being simultaneously at the foot of the Cross and rejoicing with the saints in Heaven, we see the way that Christ suffered for us and also the great victory that His suffering won – His place at the Father’s right hand and our ability to enter that heavenly reward with Him, which is the whole goal of the Christian life and should be the litmus test of everything we do – Will this help me get to Heaven? We are here at Holy Mass because we want to go to Heaven, and we know that worshiping Almighty God and receiving His only begotten Son in Holy Communion will help us to get there.
In some way, offering Christ’s sacrifice in the Holy Mass is the duty and privilege of all Christians. As the priest holds up the paten (the flat disk with the large host) and the chalice at the offertory (while you are singing the offertory hymn), you should place yourself on that paten and in that chalice, desiring that your life, with all that you suffer and all that you offer to the Lord, might accompany Christ’s sacrifice in being pleasing to God the Father and meriting to be transformed into a source of grace and mercy, just as the bread and wine are transformed into Christ’s body and blood.
While all Christians are called to have a close and intimate relationship with Christ’s sacrifice in the Eucharist, a particular role is reserved for certain persons whom Christ particularly desires to draw to Himself, just like Mary Magdalene in the Gospel today, about whom Our Lord says, “Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from Her.” Here of course I am referring to Our Lord’s chosen priests, whom the Lord calls to a particular conformity to Him so that they might be able to stand in His place in extending His redeeming sacrifice through time. To stand at the altar and offer the Holy Sacrifice is a great and immense privilege, and every Catholic young man ought to ask himself whether God might be calling him to experience the great joy of making present our Lord Jesus Christ under the signs of bread and wine.
Every Christian, though, is also a priest, sharing not in His ministerial priesthood, but in the common priesthood of the Baptized, which, according to the Second Vatican Council is different not only by degree but also by kind from the ministerial priesthood. That is to say, these two forms of Christ’s priesthood are essentially different, but both are true participations in His one priesthood. That means that every Christian is called to offer sacrifice, to fill up in our flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ. When we do so, we participate in Christ’s priesthood, uniting Heaven and earth in our very bodies and making present the power of His saving redemption.
One word of caution is warranted when we think about these concepts of penance and mortification. It would be easy to think – and many have indeed so thought – that they are necessary because our bodies are sources of evil. This is not the case. Penance and mortification are necessary because our bodies are essentially good. Sin is evil, not the body. Yes, in our fallen state, our bodies (and particularly our bodily passions) are susceptible to the powers of sin (more so even than our souls), but the body is made for holiness. Penance and mortification help the body to achieve its God-given goal, of being more perfectly directed by the soul.
A life of discipline helps us to keep proper order within ourselves, our bodies subject to our souls. This right ordering according to God’s design leads to true freedom. Yes, the person who does penance is more free, not less! She denies herself what she would like to have, but becomes more free because she gains more perfect control over her body and rightly orders herself according to God’s design. She is more free to do the good.
Every Christian is called to make his or her own Paul’s words, to fill up in our bodies what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. We do so through our daily and weekly (Friday) penances; through mortifying our wills, appetites, and senses; and most especially by participating through our bodies in Christ’s Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The Eucharist that those who share Christ’s grace are privileged to receive is, as St. Paul puts it today, “the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past. [N]ow it has been manifested to his holy ones, to whom God chose to make known the riches of the glory.” In the Eucharist, Christ’s sufferings and yours are perfectly fulfilled.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
XVI Sunday Through the Year, A.D. MMXIX