“It is necessary for us to pass through many miseries to enter the Kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
The Mass readings from last Sunday present the whole sweep of the political theology of Christianity: the only way to a world fully determined by the loving sovereignty of God, in which “death shall be no more, nor shall grief or crying or pain be any longer, for the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4), is the way of faith, which is the way of suffering love.
The readings (one of which has reappeared in the lectionary and another in the breviary during the week) lay out the conditions for authentic Christian subjectivity, that is, the conditions that must be fulfilled if we are to become instruments of God the Father’s plan of loving goodness and therefore citizens of the New Jerusalem, the city of universal solidarity and intimacy.
How is the Father’s will done on earth as it is in heaven?
Paul is stoned at Lystra, but survives. Then Luke sums up the evangelizing of Paul and Barnabas in central Anatolia this way: “Strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to remain (parakalountes emmenein) in the faith and [advocating] the necessity that we enter the Kingdom of God by passing through many miseries (thlipseon)” (Acts 14:22).
Thlipsis means a condition in which one is pressed hard, constricted, and therefore severely distressed. It’s a being squeezed, oppressed, compressed, hemmed in, placed in a narrow space, besieged, with the anxiety and burdening and troubling of heart that follow. It’s a situation in which the walls are closing in and there’s no way out. Under that kind of unsustainable pressure, there are only two options: despair or faith.
It is through such impossible situations (it’s plural!) of utter distress and misery that we are to pass if we are to reach the Kingdom of Heaven. This is the “narrow way”: traversing time in a way that rubs one raw. The broad way of existing is simply to go along with the currents of power and worldly success and comfort. But there can be no faith in such clear sailing. We cannot get to heaven if life is easy. We simply cannot. The way to heaven is faith. Faith means believing when it makes no existential sense to believe.
Luke grammatically links “evangelization” (14:21) to this content: remain in the faith; there’s nothing else but the Kingdom of God, and suffering is the only way there.
To abide or remain or dwell (emmenein) in the faith means laying your head on the breast of the One Who has no place to lay His head.
The word we see throughout the New Testament in similar passages about the sufferings we must undergo is hupomone, patience or endurance, a “remaining under” the pressures of space and time and sin and death. We cannot understand faith without the whole complex of words built off of the root, meno (to abide, stay, remain). Yesterday’s Gospel, for example: “As the Father loved Me, so I also loved you. Remain (meinate) in My love. If you keep My commandments (entolas), you will remain (meneite) in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments (entolas) and remain (meno) in His love” (John 15:9-10).
[As I noted in my post “Glory Built in the Dark,” glossing John 14:2, when Jesus says, “In My Father’s household there are many dwellings (monai),” He speaks of the fulfillment of the quintessential Christian characteristic that is hupomone. Read with the passage from Acts we’ve been looking at, our only “dwelling” in time is a dwelling in faith, an enduring under the strains and straitening of finitude and sin, that leads to a dwelling in the Kingdom of God, the superabundant satisfaction of our purified loves.
Also, apropos yesterday’s Gospel, my post “Some Trinitarian Reflections on Judgment and Hell” offers an account of entole as code for the Holy Spirit in His objectification: love as law.]
The word thlipsis is often translated as tribulation or persecution. However, in a bourgeois and a bourgeoisified-Christian context, such translations might exotify the kind of suffering Paul and Barnabas are speaking of, in two ways: 1) we might think that persecution is something that belongs only to “endtimes” or to certain political regimes; and 2) we might limit the scope of the relevant miseries to sufferings borne explicitly for the Name of Jesus.
With regard to 1): Paul has just been stoned for his Christian witness. How could he and Barnabas say anything different about the cost of conversion? It would be much worse than false advertising. Paul always preached Christ and Him crucified. Any other presentation of the Christian faith would be a lie.
Christianity is joy. Absolutely. But it is joy amidst pain. It is Eucharist, celebration and immolation all at once. Why? Because that is what this life is like. More, that simply is what love is like. The wound of love is the strangest happiness, but it is the only happiness. Even in the New City, though grief and death will no longer hover about the wound, the pierced heart will still be the measure: no life but in self-divestment. It's just that in the Kingdom, we always receive the balm of beloved and loving presence. The Cross is not simply imposed by sin; there is something in it that is of the Trinitarian life itself. True love is a wound that is always being healed.
If our Christianity has not the breadth for such realities, we've simply fashioned a bourgeois fantasy for ourselves: love as commodity; love on the consumerist model; love as self-care.
I think there’s a temptation in the comfortable lands of the post-Christian West to try to make Christianity more palatable by relegating the Cross to the fine print (and I don’t just mean the obviously diabolical lie of the “prosperity gospel,” the equation of Christianity with worldly success.)
Now, not yet anyway (we shall see as gender ideologies consolidate hegemonic control), most of us don’t seem to bear much cost for being Christians in America. We rightly look at, say, the Muslim or the Chinese convert with awe at his or her bravery.
But the fact is, being a Christian in earnest will always cost us, no matter where or when we live. There are Christians who are so consistent in their Christianity that they have forfeited status and wealth and ease of lifestyle, even in America. Think of a pro-lifer taking a stand in an inimical environment. We should all be alert to the times we are each specifically called (and these calls come to all of us) to sustain a blow for Christian witness.
The Acts of the Apostles is a handbook for the new evangelization. In this passage, we see a crucial fact that is actually all over the New Testament, but which we very, very seldom teach: “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and so enter into His glory?” (Luke 24:26). Where the Master is, there will His servant be. There is only one Way to the Kingdom.
Sunday’s Gospel emphasizes that the glorification of love happens only in betrayal: “When [Judas] went out, Jesus said, ‘Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in Him’” (John 14:31). And from the broken heart alone can come the one law of the Kingdom: “I give you a new commandment (entolen): love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another” (John 13:34).
Becoming a Christian in earnest means existence in the Cross. That is the simple reality. Downplaying that fact is a failure that seems characteristically American. The extension and the intensification of the faith will always only occur through suffering.
For example, I feel as if Marian consecration should come with a warning label: this is great, but because it is, it’s going to scald you. Marriage, the same thing. Having children. Loving anyone. Doing anything worthwhile… “Costing not less than everything.”
We also know this in terms of the Carmelite teaching on spiritual growth as requiring dark nights.
Taking Christianity seriously means letting ourselves in for everything Jesus lets Himself in for so that He can rescue the perishing in the heart of darkness.
The human condition is that into which the eternal Son descends. We are not raptured out of tribulation by becoming Christian. That’s exactly backwards. We are raptured into tribulation. We are sent deeper into solidarity with our suffering neighbors.
Every Christian must share in Christ’s redemption of each human being. Vicarious suffering is the calling of each Christian, “to fill up what is lacking in the miseries (thlipseon) of Christ” (Colossians 1:24).
“Offering it up” is a direct entailment of the Christification of humanity’s consubstantial solidarity. To the extent we are “in Christ,” we are sharing in the great agony of the world so that there come a time when “there will be no more grief or crying or pain.”
As for 2), the other way to exotify the “miseries” that we are to endure is to limit the suffering that counts to that which is suffered explicitly for Christian witness. We have already begun to edge into this discussion, because rejecting this false limitation depends on Christology.
Jesus is the eternal Word through Whom all things were made. Any partisan tendency to reduce Christianity to the rank of another special-interest group (and this goes for any grievance identity-politics exercised by well-meaning Christians) erodes the universal scope, the catholicity, of Christianity. To choose either particularity (Pharisaism) or universality (liberal Christianity) betrays the substance of the religion of the eternal Word. In and through the particular cultus of the true religion, everything about human life is transfigured.
For example, do we care about Christians persecuted in Syria and Iraq? We surely must be. Are we to be any less hospitable to the Muslim victims of the Sunni-Shiite civil war?
Alongside the particularity of Paul’s being stoned for the Name, in the narrative context of this passage of Acts, there is also this astonishing statement of universality, by which Paul and Barnabas are trying to persuade the crowd in Lystra not to worship them as Zeus and Hermes, to give up idolatry for the universal God: “Men, why are you doing these things? We also suffer and feel as you do (homoipatheis). We are men giving you the good news that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, Who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all the things in them. In past generations, He allowed all the nations to go their own ways. And yet He did not leave Himself without witness: in doing good, giving you rains and seasons of bearing fruit, filling you with food and filling your hearts with joy” (Acts 15-17).
Magnificent. And there’s the joy. Every single joy comes from the Father.
It is a radical mistake to limit the universal scope of Scripture. Certainly “tribulations” cannot be separated from the particularity of explicit suffering for witness to Jesus. But if we therefore fail to understand that all human suffering is meant to be taken captive by Christianity, we have missed the point.
A contraction of the scope of Scripture is always a hermeneutical blunder, say, if we read “the least of these” in the great judgment scene of Matthew as referring only to our treatment of Christian disciples; or if we read the Book of Revelation as applying primarily to some time in the future rather than as the exposition of the dramatic structure of history; or if we take the new command to love one another as referring only to our treatment of fellow Christians.
Yes, there is always an ineluctable reference to the intraecclesial. But it is not an either/or between particular and universal. In and through the particular we are to stretch towards the universal.
The Bible is The Book, not because it tells of an esoteric experience, but because it tells us the truth of all human experience. The Cross is not about some God-guy doing something over there that somehow affects me, transacting with a god above our heads (too much soteriology is like this). The Cross is Jesus’ entry into all human suffering, or it is worthless. This is where the theologian Johann Baptist Metz’s work is not optional, with his emphasis on the memory of the victims, if used as a way to recover the pre-Enlightenment anthropology of consubstantial solidarity, without which we are left with the punctual anthropology that has each human be a billiard ball to every other. But Christianity makes no sense with that view of human nature and of time. This anthropological mistake, radical individualism and historicist progressivism, is the fundamental conceptual reason Christianity is a no-go proposition for the post-Christian West. It’s at the same time the reason the West has embraced the culture of death. No solidarity, no Christ; no Christ, no solidarity.
Christianity places human life in a double register, that of nature and grace. The revelation of the world of grace does not efface the world of nature; rather, grace manifests the apocalyptic context of nature.
This is why, for example, I am baffled by those who are baffled by the speculative proposal that the victims of abortion can be understood by analogy to the Slaughter of the Innocents. Caryll Houselander notes that for the Herods of the world (that is, any of us who wield differential power for our own advantage), any child could be the Christ child. When we strike any open and vulnerable face, even with a spiteful word, we strike Jesus Christ. That’s simply what Incarnation means: “The Son of God has in some way united Himself with every man” (Gaudium et spes 22). The singularity of the Incarnation, which is never surpassable, aims only at the universal.
Jesus does not touch some subsection of life. He is in everything. Absolutely everything. Indeed, “God made Him to be sin” (II Corinthians 5:21). Everything. There is no darkness we can cause, that we can suffer, that Jesus does not suffer.
That’s why it is good news that we must pass through many miseries to come to the Kingdom of God. It means our being in Jesus and His being in us. From this mutual embrace as we hurtle through the night comes His whisper, “Behold, I make all things new.”