The Anawim Community


White Coat Reflections

by Sr. Karen Willenbring MD
March, 2014


White Coat ReflectionsThe Suffering and Death of Christ


During Lent, we pray with one of the pivotal moments that underlie our faith – the suffering and death of Jesus - - In Psalm 22, Jesus’ true experience is described accurately, as we see echoed in Matthew 27. Jesus is in the height of his suffering – crucified on the cross and being mocked and jeered by the very people who had sung his praises earlier on in the week. What could have gone so wrong – from the celebration of his entry into Jerusalem, now to his agony in the garden, his capture, beatings, carrying of the cross, and then being nailed to the cross? The suffering in all of this is hard for us to really look at and we often like to move right on to the rest of the story – the joy of the resurrection. None of us certainly likes suffering and we do everything we can to avoid it. But at this time in Lent, let’s spend some time sinking in to this mystery. The suffering of Jesus – what does this mean for us?


When I was a junior in high school, I remember vividly attending a Parish Mission where the presenter took a whole evening to really describe in detail what Jesus really suffered – each step of the way his description was so vivid – the images were seared into my mind and soul. That Good Friday I was sitting on our porch swing praying and I wept because I had some sense of what Jesus went through for me. I remember in my prayer really seeing Jesus on the cross - and I so longed to ease his suffering that I pleaded with him, “Please, let me help you, let me take you down from the cross.” And in my prayer I heard him answer me, “No child, I love you too much, I must bear this pain so we may one day be together.” And in that very vivid prayer experience, I heard Jesus cry out in agony and at the same time I heard people crying out from beyond the hills – and the cries were one and the same – and I realized in that moment that all the suffering of everyone in the world was borne by Jesus – the sin, the pain all of it – mine included. That prayer experience changed my life forever.


I did not quite understand, however, WHY Jesus had to suffer, and it is only recently I have gained some insights into this. I learned from an early age, that “Jesus suffered and died to take away my sins,” but I always had trouble with the concept the God the Father, God who is Love, and who I loved deeply, would in a sense set the crucifixion of Jesus as payment for our sins. I could not reconcile a loving God with a God who would stand by and watch while Jesus went through all these horrors as a kind of “now payment has been made” . I was always wanting to take Jesus down off the cross and figured God the Father should have also. I lived with the uncertainty or mystery of it.


On retreat recently, I received an explanation that finally made some sense to me. Fr. Thomas Keating, who is a Trappist Monk, has a series of DVDs that we were watching as part of the retreat and there was one on sin & suffering and one on redemption. And in it he explained that God the Father, who is entirely Divine Love, loves each of us completely and calls us to be united with Him. Yet, sin (which is present in all of us) is completely opposite of God’s nature of love and there is no place for sin with God. So in order to make possible our union with God, Jesus (who is God) was sent by God to do two things - -

  1. Show us this great love of God for us and to give us an example of how to live as the Father is – complete Love – his teachings all point to how we are to live with Love as the core of all we do, say, and are.
  2. Jesus also came to perform an act of such great love that sin would be put to death –

So what was this great act of love? In order for the stumbling block of sin to be taken away so that our union with God is possible, Jesus FREELY CHOSE to take on all sin into himself, all of its effects, its horrors, its misery, its pain as an act of true love for us and for the Father. And it is love that transforms.


In the garden, Jesus sees what is in the cup - - all of the sin of the world past, present, and future, and cries out, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass me by…” Jesus is at the human level of sheer dread, but then knowing only a supreme act of love can remove this sin, Jesus says, “Not my will, but YOUR will be done,”. What he means is - - the Father’s will is always about LOVE, as that is the Father’s complete nature - - so Jesus says ‘not my human reluctance to do this’, but ‘let Love be done’. And so Jesus takes on all sin, absorbs it into himself, and lets go of everything it meant to be God, even to the point of separation from the Father – separation from Divine Love – because sin can have no part of union with God, and even to accepting his own death - - and Jesus cries out in that moment of separation and the moment of ultimate gift of love and sacrifice – “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” It is this unimaginable act of LOVE that removes our sin – as Love always transforms.


So for me this was such an “AHA” moment - - God the Father did not say “You have to suffer and then all will be taken care of”. God said, “I love my people so much that I want them to be one with me…and Jesus said, I will go and show them how to love, and I will love them so much that I will be willing to give up all that it means to be God, and I will take all sin upon me, and remove it, as love always transforms, and then sin will no longer keep them from our love. ” It is that supreme act of love in which Jesus freely accepts the suffering caused by all sin – past, present, and future – that removes that sin from us allowing us to become one with our God - - the gates of heaven are open to us through The suffering and death of Jesus – which really was an incredible transforming act of love. This understanding for me was such a breakthrough for me because I knew God was Love and that idea that it was Love - - in the way of Jesus willingness to take on sin with its suffering - - that has transformed our sin and taken it away - - that I could reconcile with a God who I knew was LOVE. The greatest ACT OF LOVE is what has brought us our redemption.


So now back to my prayer experience that transformed my life - - when I realized that the suffering of Jesus and the suffering of people everywhere was one and the same, I knew that I couldn’t take Jesus down from the cross, but I sure could do all I could to alleviate the sufferings of others - - and so that is the call for all of us - - to Live out lives of love - - as Jesus has shown us the way to do - - and to do what we can to alleviate the suffering of others in our own acts of Love. And when we suffer, we are called to unite our suffering to that of Jesus - - and also unite it to the supreme LOVE of Jesus, so that it too can be redemptive – because LOVE is what transforms ourselves and our world.


So when you hear the intense suffering of Jesus and of his death for all of us during Palm Sunday and Good Friday, be mindful of the ACT OF LOVE of Jesus behind all of this that brings about our redemption, the taking on of all sin and suffering, the giving up of all it meant to be God, so that we all could enjoy an eternity of Union with God - - An eternity of union with a Love we cannot even begin to comprehend. “God so loved the world, he gave his only Son……that we might have eternal life.”





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