The feast of St Alphonsa, the first Indian woman to be canonized, is being celebrated at Bharananganam today, as well as in many other churches across the State of Kerala. Understandably, the celebrations are muted compared with the previous years, but the spiritual fervor remains unabated as we reflect on her path to sainthood.
One common thread that runs prominently through the lives of St Alphonsa and Mother Teresa of Calcutta was their response to suffering in the context of the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ. St Alphonsa was in the footsteps of St Teresa of Lisieux in her acceptance of her own physical sufferings and frequent bouts of ill-health, and even desired to take on the sufferings of others upon herself. Mother Teresa believed that her own suffering, as well as the pain of those she tended to, were powerful and privileged signs of sharing in Christ’s suffering. She described suffering as “the kiss of Jesus, a sign that you have come so close that He can kiss you.”
For many of us, this interpretation of suffering is somewhat confusing, especially as the Bible presents several different perspectives of why people are burdened with suffering in their journey of life. The first of these comes very early in the Book of Genesis when God pronounces judgement on Adam and Eve and banishes them from the Garden condemning them to physical labour, pain, suffering and mortality.
Subsequently, suffering is seen to come as a consequence of disobedience and disloyalty to God. From the terrible disasters that God brought upon Egypt culminating in the death of every first born Egyptian, to the intermittent punishments that the Israelites faced during their long journey through the desert, God’s wrath resulted in great suffering to the erring populace.
Adding to these, the idea that suffering is inflicted by the devil comes from the Book of Job where the Lord allows Satan to test His faithful servant. As a result, Job is subject to every kind of earthly suffering. The Old Testament also gives evidence of the generational curse which brings punishment down to the third and fourth generations, for the misdeeds of their ancestors.
In the light of these biblical references, many of us have had very uneasy thoughts echoing in our minds, especially as we face this global pandemic. Is this a punishment from the Lord for our misdeeds? Or is this the work of Satan, especially since God’s people have been physically separated from eucharistic celebrations and socially distanced from their neighbors? For those who have lost their jobs, or shut down businesses, are these struggles of life the punishment that we have inherited for the sins of our first parents? The several possible causes are worrying if taken in the context of the Old Testament.
The New Testament however diverts the entire focus of suffering, from causes and reasons, to its actual experience. With the coming of the Messiah, the why and wherefore concerning past acts of sinfulness have faded into insignificance. No-one is beyond redemption. To those who are burdened with life’s problems, Jesus extends an open invitation to take up their cross and follow Him—no questions asked!
During His brief ministry in the world, thousands thronged His path to experience His healing touch. Those whom he cured from diseases were given a clean slate to embrace the Word of God, starting from those healing moments. At one point, during the healing of a blind man, the people asked Jesus whether the blindness was an ancestral sin or whether it was the result of the man’s own misdeeds. Once and for all, He threw away the burden of past causes, and explicitly spelt out the process and results of redemptive suffering—“Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that God’s power would be seen at work in him” -John 9:3
Finally, the suffering of Christ, His Passion and Death on the cross, in obedience to the will of the Father, became a path to divinity. From a symbol of God’s curse, suffering metamorphosized to a powerful engine of worship that brings us in close proximity to the cross and its promise of redemption. St Alphonsa and Mother Teresa picked up this path to Jesus, the path of redemptive suffering that unites us forever to the Cross of Christ Jesus, and assures us of our rightful place in heaven.