Easter, Suffering, and Hope
Fr. David Ruchinski
Sixteen years ago I was a seminarian, serving on my pastoral year at a parish in Jacksonville after my first two years of theology studies In Rome.
And that meant that like most of the rest of the world, I watched via television the final stages of John Paul II’s battle with Parkinson’s disease. Many here, I know, would be too young to remember how strikingly young and vibrant Karol Woytila was when he first ascended to the See of Peter, but many of us here can remember that image of him struggling to choke out a few words to the crowds gathered in St. Peter’s Square for Holy Week, many of whom stayed to keep prayerful vigil for him as he died.
And because, as a seminarian, I had had the chance to personally meet the Pope, to have him take me by the hand and speak to me and to give me a rosary, which became such a treasured memento to me, watching him publicly suffer like that felt somehow more real and intense to me. It somehow hit closer to home.
At the time I’m not sure whether I had read John Paul’s letter on the Meaning of Suffering, Salvifici Dolores. But later, as a priest, as I have accompanied so many people — including members of my own family — along the path of suffering in their lives, I have come back multiple times to his words — but more than that, to the lived reality of this great man’s example — and thought to myself, “Here was a man who truly knew the gospel.”
I say this because, as our readings for today, this third Sunday of Easter, amply demonstrate, suffering is not something that we, as followers of Christ should expect to avoid. Suffering is not disconnected from or foreign to the gospel. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not good news because it promises us comfort.
Peter, in one of the first great sermons recorded in the New Testament, declares, “God has thus brought to fulfillment what he had announced beforehand through the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer.”
And Jesus Himself tells His disciples on the first Easter evening, “Thus it is written that the Christ would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”
If Jesus, the head, the first born from the dead, “learned obedience from what He suffered” — as we read in the Letter to the Hebrews — what can we, the members of His mystical body, who hope to share in His resurrection…what can we expect?
The world may offer us comfort and safety, but we were not made for comfort. We were made for glory.
This is the true message of Easter. This is the truth of the gospel. To deny it would be to deny Jesus Himself, and for me to preach any other message to you on this third Sunday of Easter would mean telling you a terrible lie.
But I want to be clear to you, what I am talking about is not some kind of Platonic dualism. I am not saying that the things of this material world are bad because they are passing and that our highest aspiration is some sort of ethereal paradise where our disembodied souls can float around among the clouds. The Jesus whose resurrection we celebrate on this third Easter Sunday is not just a spirit.
“Why are you troubled?” He said to His disciples, “And why do questions arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.”
And then He showed them his hands and his feet, still marked with the nail holes of His terrible suffering.
Many preachers over the years have reflected on the meaning of those nail holes, but the good news I want to share with you today is that those nail marks are our greatest reason for hope in this world.
Those nail marks in Jesus’ hands and His feet, the gaping wound in His side, the hole that pierced His Most Sacred Heart is a constant reminder to me (and daily I need to be reminded) that no human suffering goes beyond the scope of God’s compassion. No pain that we endure — no broken relationship, no disappointment, no difficult exam or demanding boss, no illness, no infirmity, no loss — nothing is foreign to the experience of our suffering Savior who walks with us through it all from the Cross to the grave to the empty tomb.
Almost two decades into my journey from priestly formation into priestly ministry I am still learning the meaning of gospel suffering, and should God grant me the length of days, I’m sure I have much more to learn. But there are plenty of guideposts and markers along the way, like the scripture readings of today’s liturgy, like the lives of the saints in heaven, and like the saintly people here on earth whose holiness even in suffering I hope to imitate.
May the wounded hands of Jesus be a source of hope for you in whatever you might have to suffer through this week.