Reflection for Lent - 25th February 2024

I have been sitting with a passage from the end of the book of the prophet Habakkuk since the start of Lent:

Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails,
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold,
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.
[Habakkuk 3:17-19]

And there the book ends. In this passage we see no denial of the suffering, no trite ‘it’s all just fine’ but rather an acknowledgement of how bad it is with starvation at the door and yet Habakkuk will rejoice in the Lord. There is no demand that God should act before he will rejoice in the Lord. Things can be terrible and yet he will rejoice in the Lord and exult in the God of his salvation, the God who gives him strength to tread upon the heights.

I find it a huge challenge to hold together these bleak images of total disaster with rejoicing in the Lord. It has taken my mind to all those in our current times who are confronting the wreckage of their lives, whether by war or natural disaster. Can we ask them to rejoice in the Lord? Does it help them if we rejoice in the Lord?

As I pondered I was drawn to Helen Luke’s exploration of suffering and how we engage with it in her book ‘Old Age’1. She points out that the word ‘suffer’ brings together two Latin words: ‘sub’ meaning ‘under’ and ‘ferre’, ‘to bear’, hence ‘bearing under’. She suggests that suffering is the ‘undercarriage’ of our lives when we carry the weight of it in full consciousness. It takes on meaning and shapes our lives. It becomes ‘affliction’ when it is a meaningless weight under which we fall and lie in self-pity. She goes on to say:

We may be emotionally moved and filled with horror and pity when we hear of the tragedies of human lives at a distance, but the emotions lift no burden, they carry nothing. In contrast, the smallest consent to the fierce, sharp pain of objective suffering in the most trivial-seeming matter may have an influence… a weight is lifted from the atmosphere, or someone we love is set free to be himself, and the sufferer acquires a new clarity of vision and sensitivity to another’s need. [pg 108]

When we consent to, rather than deny, the suffering that comes our way we can carry it in a way that makes a difference to others – certainly to those around us but also in a mysterious way those at a distance too. Acknowledging our own suffering is not a selfish thing, it is what enables us to be more sensitive to the needs of others.

I see this as one way we respond to Jesus call to carry our own cross that we heard about in this morning’s sermon. We are not called to carry the sins of the whole world as Jesus did but in our own small ways we can contribute to the completing of his work of salvation for the sake of his body, the church. As the author of the letter to the Colossians writes:

I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. [Colossians 1:24]

Like Habakkuk, he can hold together rejoicing and suffering, knowing that there is meaning in what is happening. The God of his salvation gives him the strength to go on in the midst of hardship.

Our own suffering can seem so small when we look out at the suffering we see elsewhere in the world. Yet these texts, ranging from Habakkuk more than 600 years before Christ, through the writer to the Colossians a few decades after Christ to Helen Luke in our own time, seem to carry the same message – that if we can accept whatever suffering we face, small or great, we can know the strength of God and rejoice whatever the circumstances. This is not trite jollity in the face of tragedy but a deep knowing that God is with us come what may. It is the message of the cross of Jesus, who accepted a cruel death and so brought God’s presence into the heart of humanity’s pain and darkness. That death, willingly embraced after the struggle of Gesthemane, opened the way to his resurrection to a new life into which we are all invited.

As we embrace that message and allow it to bring joy in our own hearts, God’s presence can flow through us and out to others who need our prayers. In that way we can play our part in the work of Christ to heal the suffering of the world.

Mother Anne - 25th February 2024

1Helen Luke, ‘Old Age: Journey Into Simplicity’, Parabola Books