Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Suffering, Salvation, and Empathy

The readings for today across the board were highly descriptive, and focused on the corporal vision of Christ. As we see in the Anselm reading these are men who really want to be able to see Christ. They attempt to achieve this through meditation and contemplation on his suffering. The highly descriptive nature of the readings invites the reader to engage in a participatory form worship, reflective of the fact that these writers themselves were attempting to participate in the Passion of the Christ. I think the reason this is so important is the fact that Christ’s suffering is the sacrifice which is the source of our salvation. God sacrificed his only begotten son for the salvation of our sins, so to understand the corporal suffering of Christ is in a way to realize and understand salvation.  I think it even becomes possible to think of salvation in two parts the human and the divine. In understanding the corporeal suffering of Christ we are able to gain an understanding of the human sacrifice which God made for us in the process of our salvation. However it is through the contemplation of Mary that we must come to understand the divine aspect of the sacrifice that God made.

I think this then has a very significant impact on how we view Mary, not as redemptress, but as the witness to Christ’s suffering. She not only participated in the conception of Christ which ultimately leads to salvation, but witness’ salvation itself in the form of the sacrificed Christ her son. As we see in the readings Mary had a special relationship with Christ, he was the flesh of her flesh, she fed him from her breast, and watched him grow from child into a Man. She was literally the mother of God, and as a result has an understanding of God and his divinity that is difficult for us to grasp. However it is at this point that Mary’s humanity becomes important, because it is the fact that Mary is human that allows us to empathize and relate to her. Through attempting to understand Mary’s pain and suffering we can begin to appreciate the divine sacrifice that God made in sacrificing his only begotten Son. In understanding Mary’s loss of Christ it becomes possible for us to begin to conceive of God’s loss. Mary’s suffering takes on new meaning, transcending the simple pain of that a parent feels for the loss of the Child, but the immense godlike pain that Mary suffers as the result of her special relationship with Christ. She feels the pain of two parents, she who conceived the Christ without knowing a Man in the same way that God feels the immense loss of his son. I emphasize again the fact that it is Mary’s suffering as a result of her particularly special loss that gives the suffering enormity and this enormity that then gives us a better understanding of God. In this context it is through Mary’s humanity that we gain access to God and the divine aspect of the crucifixion and salvation.    

The powerful imagery in this context then becomes extremely important because of its ability to induce the empathy that allows us to participate in salvation. In empathizing with Christ and his suffering we gain and understanding of the human sacrifice God made, and truly come to realize that God became Man. In becoming Man god gained the understanding of the nature of human sin, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:24).  It is then this empathy for Mankind, derived from his human experience, that allowed god to forgive us of our sin. It is only then through empathy and understanding that we can truly understand salvation for at the heart of salvation is forgiveness despite everything suffered. This forgiveness is given enormity through the understanding of the suffering, not only the corporeal but also the divine. Through our empathy with Mary we understand the divine aspect of God’s sacrifice as God the father. This then is why Mary continues to pop up in prayers to Christ such as in Anselm, because it is only through Mary that we are able to gain a full perception of Christ.

While a distinctly different approach to Mary than many of the other readings we have done for the course, I think it is necessarily different. In fact one could argue that this concept of Mary was bound to emerge from the combination of her role in salvation as mother of God, her humanity, and her humility. As Mary was humble before God so to must we be humble, but that humility is derived not from empty piety but rather from the full understanding of the sacrifice made and the forgiveness given. In fact once we understand Mary as the means of understanding God, the connection between the divine and the human, we can better appreciate her other roles in salvation and the special context and place she is given in the Catholic cannon. While I think this is something that all the readings have touched up, it is the participatory nature of these writings which not only allows for access, but also understanding.

This reflection is really an amalgamation of both the reading and the discussion we had in class. I wish that I could better cite the particular ideas that different people and readings contributed to this post, but I honestly don’t know that I could. However I certainly recognize this post as a lager synthesis of everything that people discussed and said in class rather than any singular creation of my own.

-Blake Alex


  1. I think one of the most important items you touched upon is the immense pain that Mary felt at the crucifixion. The way I thought about it was based off of a Good Friday hymn I’ve heard that says “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” “Were you there when they nailed Him to a tree?”. And the fact is that Mary was there when they crucified and nailed Him to a cross. A way that I like to think of the crucifixion is kind of a gateway to understanding suffering that comes in everyday life. The fact that Mary was a human mother and saw her only son brutally beat and then crucified alive and in obvious pain makes the Passion very hair-raising.
    Mary seems to take on greater importance by being there during the crucifixion. She not only gave birth to Christ, but followed him throughout his mystery and unto his death.
    Mary is presented as a mediator in allowing God to take flesh from her womb and as a foreseer in knowing what Christ is destined to do.
    “Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too." (Luke 2:34-2:35)”
    At the Passion she is then presented as the one person to hold faith the strongest, even though she is in extreme pain. In dying with Christ (p 451, From Judgment to Passion), Mary becomes one of the first people to feel the pain that Christ felt…something that might later be reflected in stigmata experiences. At the passion Mary continues to participate in the plan of human salvation by standing by her son as He is wrongly accused, beaten, insulted and ultimately executed on the Cross. Mary’s suffering may also remind us of Christ’s real and human suffering. Not to say that the Divine nature of Christ can be separated or ignored. It is however important that the amount of scourging and beating, carrying the cross and being crucified while still alive is an immense amount of pain that would seem to almost require more-than-human strength to remain alive and support. The role of Mary’s suffering at the foot of the cross may serve to remind us of the part of Christ’s suffering that was human.

  2. Blake: Very nice working of the readings and the class discussions. You give a clear statement unifying the main themes and expand on them where necessary to explain your (convincing) take on the necessity of these writings, particularly in their difference from other writings on Christ and Mary.

    You mention that “to understand the corporal suffering of Christ is a way to realize and understand salvation,” and the word “important” occurs in your post several times in relation to gaining this understanding (a sentiment ratified by E.A.T.’s comment on your post).** So, a question (concerning your post and the readings): What is the *practical* necessity of obtaining the kind of experiential understanding of Christ’s suffering you write about? (I mean practical in terms of salvation.) Does it bring one closer to salvation with God, motivate one to continue on the “straight and narrow,” or is it (just) the product of cloistered individuals who focus all of their energy on Godly things? Can/does salvation come to those who don’t obtain this understanding? Is it more difficult for them?

    **Don’t get me wrong. I agree with understanding as a worthy goal in itself. But as one whose profession is based on trying to “understand,” I pose the gadflyish “purely practical” questions.

  3. Beautiful meditation on the central theme of our readings. Yes, meditating on Mary's suffering helps makes it possible (insofar as it is possible) for us to contemplate God's. I would have liked to see how you linked this central theme to the specific examples that we read for our discussion, to show us how this meditation works, but you are spot on with the larger purpose!