Colossians 1:24
…In my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ…
This has to be one of the most confusing lines that St. Paul wrote. Many people have tried to describe what he means by this. I think it deserves another look.
Some people choose to dismiss this because they feel it is saying that St. Paul doesn’t think Christ’s death on the cross is enough. So they choose to ignore it, rather than think seriously about the implications of this claim. St. Paul makes it clear in other places in his writing how important Christ’s passion is for salvation. He is NOT saying that he thinks what he is going through his life is equal to what Christ endured on the cross. These are but a few of the misconceptions that have been presented over the years.
What St. Paul is acknowledging is that there is some mysterious participation in the cross of Christ that all disciples are called to share in. Jesus himself tells us this when he says “take up your cross and follow me.” When Jesus said this, the cross was known to be an instrument of torture and death. We have spiritualized the meaning of “take up your cross” to such an extent that it makes it hard to equate this spiritualized suffering with a martyrdom on our part, not to mention the physical suffering of Jesus.
But… this “spiritualized meaning” is not a wrong way to approach the understanding of this call to take up our cross. To paraphrase a couple of saints: our individual redemption happens when we struggle to become like Christ. But, these crosses, these sufferings do not accomplish redemption in our lives. It is not possible for us to redeem ourselves. We receive our salvation through the cross of Christ – only.
Rather, a better way of referring to it would be: because we patiently endure the sufferings of this life, as Jesus endured his sufferings, we can understand and appropriate for ourselves the mystery of Jesus’ Passion. Without enduring suffering, tragedy, and loss, how can we possibly understand what Jesus, the Son of Man and the Son of God, endured for our sake because of his love for us?
To look at this in yet another way, when we conform ourselves to Christ through suffering, we begin to look like Christ to the world, to ourselves, and more importantly, to God the Father. Pope St. John Paul wrote: “Suffering, more than anything else, makes present in the history of humanity the force of the Redemption.” This mystery of suffering was well understood by the Pope, given his own history with Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and his own fight with Parkinson’s disease. He stood firm in his witness to Christ through more suffering than most of us will see in three lifetimes.
So, what can we draw from all of this?
In the primary point, there is nothing lacking in the sufferings of Christ. What he endured accomplished our salvation. Paul is not challenging that in any way. There is nothing we can do that will accomplish our salvation on our own. Salvation comes only through Christ and him crucified.
But in a secondary point, unless we enter into the mystery of Christ’s suffering by way of our own suffering, we cannot understand fully what Christ has done. We see that our own sufferings are the result of sin. And we learn through them that it is Christ’s suffering that takes away sin. Because of our broken human nature, we are stuck with enduring suffering even though Christ’s suffering set us free from the effects, the eternal effects, of sin. He has taken away the effects of Original Sin.
In a tertiary point, our sufferings, when they are united to Christ’s, have multiple benefits. The most important of these benefits is that we can witness to the work of Christ in the world through our own sufferings and our conformity to Christ through these sufferings. This is the witness of the martyrs; but not just them, this is the witness of all those who declare Christ to the world.
Another benefit of our sufferings is that they can fill us with a compassion for others who are suffering. This leads us to act as Christ for – and in – the world.
Jesus, you came to take away not our suffering but the effects of our suffering. You invite us also to enter into the mystery of your cross. Help us to embrace the cross for the sake of others, so that we can better understand what you have done for each one of us.
Help us to stay at the foot of the cross and offer to you our hearts, our lives, everything that we are. By the power of your cross, make what we offer holy and acceptable before the Father. Help us to make up for whatever is lacking, not in the efficacy of your cross, but in the way people understand it.
Make us martyrs, that is witnesses, to the cross so that you will receive all the glory and honor and praise that is rightfully your do. Amen.