I was at my home parish today, a beautiful old Italian church built originally by immigrants, praying with the help of my rosary beads before the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. As I was contemplating the Nativity, I realized that the whole infancy narrative is shot through with suffering, a stark contrast to the infancy narrative of the Buddha which is presented as perfect, sanitary, bloodless, and painless.
There are of course joyful moments, such as with the gifts of the magi or the honor given the Christ-child by the shepherds. No doubt a quiet smile filled the faces of Mary and Joseph on more than one occasion, as it does for many parents on the birth of a child. The mere existence of a child is indeed cause for great joy!
Nonetheless, they suffered hardships on the way to Bethlehem, and more hardships once they arrived. Giving birth is, of course, its own set of sufferings; the act of giving birth is a suffering-for, an embrace of suffering so that one we love might have life. This act of suffering-for is followed inevitably by countless other acts of suffering-for as Mary and Joseph provide the Christ-child with food and shelter; the labor of their bodies, though different, involved suffering for the sake of the life of the child.
Their suffering was the suffering of love, a suffering born of lowering the self to lift up the beloved. This action of the suffering of love Mary and Joseph performed over and over again, suffering in their own ways as Jesus grew and was lost to them in Jerusalem, as he left to begin his public ministry, as he was betrayed by his disciple Judas Iscariot, as he was interrogated by the Sanhedrin, as he was scourged by the Roman soldiers, as he carried the heavy crushing weight of the cross, as he was nailed to the cross, and as he died upon the cross.
As the end of Jesus' earthly ministry drew closer, their suffering of love became not just a suffering-for, but also a suffering-with: compassion. They suffered the heartache of knowing that their beloved son was hurting, that he was on the road to death, and that he had died. They shed the tears of love for Jesus just as Jesus had shed the tears of love for Lazarus. Mary, his dear mother, suffered with him, her heart breaking for him even unto the foot of the cross.
The suffering of love is interwoven of suffering-for and suffering-with; so too was the sacrifice on the cross both an act of suffering for us and with us, a glorious passion which offered divine redemption and profound compassion which exemplified divine love. Love suffered unto death; it was both the suffering of Love and the suffering of love. The suffering of love which Mary and Joseph had undergone had found its end in the suffering of their child who had come to suffer and die for them and for all.
The sacrifice on the cross was the climax of the suffering of Love, and the descent into Hell a triumph of Love; it was by the suffering of Love that Love triumphed over the grave so that we might have life eternal in the embrace of divine love. It is in embracing suffering that Christ loved to death the very sting of death, in His divine mercy granting us an invitation into the divine household as adopted children of God. We who would have life eternal must follow Christ, uniting ourselves with Him in practicing the suffering of love; we must take up our own cross of suffering and bear it with love as He bore our sins with love on His cross.
Just as Christ's entire life was an act of suffering-for and suffering-with His beloved flock, so too our entire lives must become an act of suffering-for and suffering-with His least brothers and sisters among His flock. This is the narrow way, the via dolorosa which we must travel to find our heavenly home. In embracing suffering, we unite ourselves ever more with Christ who suffered unto death on the cross that we might have life, and have it abundantly, thus accepting the gift of the triumph of Love.
Christ's life was God's song of love to all His children, a song in which Mary participated in a special way as she suffered to bring Love into the world, as she suffered to nurture Love as He encountered the world, as she suffered to support the mission of Love, and as she wept for the death of Love. The Suffering of Love is inseparable from Mary's suffering of love, from her acceptance of the suffering she would endure for her entire life for the sake of the Life of Love. She lived the life of love, showing us most profoundly how to joyfully accept Christ into our own lives, even at the cost of suffering.
The acts of giving birth and accepting death for the sake of others are inextricably bound up with one another by way of suffering embraced for the sake of life; this suffering so that another might have life is the suffering of love, the most worthy kind of suffering and the most worthy kind of love united in their power to separate us from all that is not of divine love and unite us with all that is of the divine Love.
By embracing the suffering of love, we accept the gift graciously offered to us by the Suffering of Love so that we might have life eternal in the divine household. By embracing the suffering of love, we understand that the Incarnation is the Suffering of Love just as the Crucifixion is the Suffering of Love, that they are an embrace of suffering by God which leads to life just as our own embrace of suffering with others and for the love of others leads to life eternal.
By embracing the suffering of love, we love to death the cause of our suffering: all those things to which we cling that are not notes in the song of divine love, that do not lift our voice to join the song of divine love, that do not carry our hearts to the Lord on the song of divine love.