Tuesday, March 28, 2006

A solid explanation of penance

Many thanks to Mark Shea.

You're both partly right. Jesus has atoned for our sin by his cross and resurrection (which is what your Evangelical friend is keyed into). However, as Paul makes clear, we are *participants* in the work of Christ in the world, by Christ's own grace. And so our sufferings (both voluntary and involuntary) are given both meaning and power to help others. The Evangelical conception of salvation has always had trouble finding a place for suffering. Amalgamated to an American ethos which says that suffering is always to be avoided, comfort is always to be sought, and anyone who disagrees is "sick", Evangelicalism can often become a tradition which not only avoids suffering but condemns those who experience it as "not having enough faith", etc. Typically, when this happens, there will be voices in the Evangelical community who will speak out on behalf of the sufferer, but that's about as far as it will go. Suffering will then be called a "mystery" (which it indeed is) and then simply dropped. The idea that there is some positive good--and emphatically some atoning virtue--in suffering is profoundly opposed by Evangelical theology because it is thought to rob Christ of the glory of his atoning work.

Paul sees it differently. That is why he tells the Colossians (in a verse that is weirdly invisible to Evangelical theology: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church." (Colossians 1:24). This is a classic example of a passage which, if it had not been in the Bible already when Evangelicalism was invented, would *never* have gotten in. It's point is utterly and thoroughly Catholic. It does not mean "Jesus didn't sufffer enough, so we have to make up the difference. It means that Christ has made us sharers in his work on earth and our sufferings are part of the means by which he is continuing to save the world. When we bear suffering we are, in a profound way, united with Christ crucified. When we do it with mercy and patience and love, we are being made agents, by the power of the Spirit, through which Christ takes away the sins of the world. If that were not the case, then there would be no point whatever in our sufferings (or indeed, in anything we do). For only what we do in God will remain.

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